Houston sued over possible denial of benefits to gay spouses

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HOUSTON (AP) — Three city employees and their spouses who are concerned that Houston could be forced to stop paying benefits to same-sex spouses due to an ongoing civil case on Thursday sued the city, asking for a court order to stop any such action.

The employees' lawsuit, filed in federal court, comes after the all-Republican state Supreme Court in June overturned a lower court's decision favoring same-sex marriage benefits and ordered the case back to a civil court in Harris County, where Houston is located.

After the Supreme Court's decision, the conservative activists who had initially sued Houston filed a motion seeking an injunction that would block the city from paying same-sex spousal benefits to its municipal employees while the case goes to trial. The activists also asked that any such benefits that have already been given be paid back by employees.

Kenneth Upton, an attorney for the three city employees and their spouses, said his clients and others who have received benefits for their same-sex spouses would be greatly harmed if they lost access to health insurance, disability and other benefits and also if they were forced to pay back such benefits.

One of the employees suing is a Houston police officer who is worried that if she is hurt or killed in the line of duty, her wife would not be entitled to the same benefits that the spouses of other police officers would have access to, said Upton, a Dallas-based attorney for Lambda Legal.

"It really is a terrible threat to people who are just trying to serve the city and do their job," he said.

Alan Bernstein, a spokesman for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, said in a statement the city, as does the state of Texas, offers employees coverage for all legally married spouses without regard to sex.

"As Mayor Sylvester Turner said in June, 'The city of Houston will continue to be an inclusive city that respects the legal marriages of all employees. Marriage equality is the law of the land, and everyone is entitled to the full benefits of marriage, regardless of the gender of their spouse,'" Bernstein said.

But the mayor might not have a choice if ordered by a judge to stop paying them, Upton said.

"The city is caught in the middle," he said.

Upton said he expects the Harris County civil court judge will grant the motion for an injunction blocking the payment of benefits because the judge has granted similar requests twice before.

Also named in Thursday's lawsuit are the two Houston residents who initially filed the lawsuit in 2013 asking that the city stop paying such benefits and who were backed by a coalition of religious and socially conservative groups. Jared Woodfill, their attorney, didn't immediately return a call seeking comment.

Social conservatives hope the case will help them chip away at the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 landmark ruling legalizing gay marriage.

The Texas Supreme Court's decision in June didn't block same-sex spousal benefits but said the U.S. Supreme Court decision did not decide the issue.

The groups suing also called the case a chance for Texas to defend religious liberty. Texas voters approved a gay marriage ban in 2005.

Upton said he is confident a federal judge will side with his clients because he believes the U.S. Supreme Court has already spoken on the rights that same sex couples are entitled to when they're legally married.


Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70

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