Supreme Court declines to intervene in battle over marriage benefits for same-sex couples

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The US Supreme Court has declined to review a ruling that affirmed gay couples can be denied marital benefits in employment.

The city of Houston was sued by evangelical anti-gay activists over its decision to extend marriage benefits to spouses of gay and lesbian employees.

The Republican-dominated Texas Supreme Court ruled against the city, finding that the extension of marriage to same-sex couples does not necessarily include the extension of the benefits of marriage.

Houston had appealed to the US Supreme Court to review the ruling, but today the court declined to do so – allowing the previous ruling against the city to stand.

Supreme Court declines to intervene in battle over marriage benefits for same-sex couples
(Creative Commons photo/Supermac1961)

The US Supreme Court only takes up a fraction of cases put before it, but the decision to avoid making clear that same-sex couples are entitled to the same benefits of marriage as others has caused some unease.

The case, known as ‘Pidgeon v Turner’, was rejected without comment from the Supreme Court justices.

The lower court’s ruling had stated that it was not yet established whether “states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons”.

Texas Values, the anti-LGBT lobbying group that had launched the legal action, was jubilant about the decision – which could threaten the economic security of gay families in the state.

According to the Statesman, the group’s President Jonathan Saenz said: “What an incredible early Christmas present from the U. S. Supreme Court.

Supreme Court declines to intervene in battle over marriage benefits for same-sex couples
(Creative Commons photo/Ted Eytan)

“Mayor Annise Parker defied the law by providing spousal benefits to same-sex couples at a time when same-sex marriage was illegal in Texas, and we intend hold the city accountable for Parker’s lawless actions and her unauthorized expenditures of taxpayer money.”

GLAAD said the decision was “concerning” given the court is gearing up to hear the long-touted ‘gay cake’ case that threatens to undermine LGBT rights protections.

Sarah Kate Ellis of GLAAD said: “With all eyes on tomorrow’s oral arguments in the Masterpiece Cakeshop religious exemptions case, the Supreme Court has just let an alarming ruling by the Texas Supreme Court stand which plainly undercuts the rights of married same-sex couples.

“Today’s abnegation by the nation’s highest court opens the door for an onslaught of challenges to the rights of LGBTQ people at every step.”

No couples will be immediately be denied benefits as a result of the decision – but the issue is expected to return to the district courts in Texas, where the case will be re-evaluated.

This week  the US Supreme Court is set to hear the case of a religious baker who is seeking to undermine state-level LGBT discrimination protections.

Jack Phillips of Colorado’s Masterpiece Cakeshop launched a legal challenge after being found in violation of state anti-discrimination laws for refusing to serve gay couple David Mullins and Charlie Craig.

The baker refused to make a cake for the couple after he found out they were celebrating their wedding

Mr Phillips claims that Jesus Christ would discriminate against gay people, and continues to insist his religion requires discrimination against gay people.

Supreme Court declines to intervene in battle over marriage benefits for same-sex couples

As the Supreme Court gears up to hear the case, the Trump administration has joined the baker’s cause.

Trump’s Justice Department will deliver oral arguments as part of the baker’s defence.

The administration argued that it has a “substantial interest” in the case to protect “free expression”.

The request seeks permission “to participate in oral argument in this case”, explaining: “The United States has filed a brief as amicus curiae supporting petitioners. Petitioners have agreed to cede ten minutes of argument time to the United States and therefore consent to this motion.

“The question presented is whether that application of Colorado law violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as applied to the States under the Fourteenth Amendment.

“The United States has filed a brief as amicus curiae supporting petitioners, contending that, in the circumstances of this case, the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause bars the application of Colorado’s public accommodations law to petitioners.”

The intervention has been slammed by supporters of LGBT rights as an attempt by the Trump administration to undermine discrimination protections.

A ruling in favour of the baker could have a chilling effect on LGBT rights protections country-wide, and equality activists fear it may end up creating a license for homophobic discrimination based on religion.

The Trump administration itself has filed an amicus brief backing the freedom to discriminate.

Trump’s Justice Department claimed that a ruling against the bakery could create an “intrusion” against the First Amendment “where a public accommodations law compels someone to create expression for a particular person or entity and to participate, literally or figuratively, in a ceremony or other expressive event.”

86 Republican members of congress have also signed an amicus brief to the US Supreme Court supporting the baker’s right to discriminate, while the Democrats have largely sided with the gay couple.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Colorado represent Mullins and Craig in the case.

James Esseks, director of the ACLU’s LGBT Project, said: “The law is squarely on David and Charlie’s side because when businesses are open to the public, they’re supposed to be open to everyone.

“While the right to one’s religious beliefs is fundamental, a license to discriminate is not.

“Same-sex couples like David and Charlie deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect as anyone else, and we’re ready to take that fight all the way to the Supreme Court.”

The baker is defended by hardline anti-LGBT law firm Alliance Defending Freedom, which has sought to undermine LGBT rights protections in a number of states.