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Abbott files briefs against Houston's same-sex benefits policy

Jayme Frase, Houston Chronicle
Updated 11:40 pm, Tuesday, January 21, 2014
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Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has filed briefs arguing that a state court should be given an opportunity to declare Houston's new policy of granting benefits to some same-sex partners of employees unlawful under Texas' marriage laws.

In the first of two amicus briefs, Abbott argued that a lawsuit filed by a pair of Houston residents to stop Mayor Annise Parker's decision last November to grant benefits to same-sex spouses of employees married legally in other states should remain in a state district court for review.

The city has tried to get the case moved to federal court to take advantage of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last year overturning the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Abbott's amicus brief argues that moving the lawsuit to federal court deprives the state of its authority to resolve the cases involving Texas' Defense of Marriage Act.

“The defendants have challenged the constitutionality of Texas's marriage laws,” Abbott writes. “This case should be remanded to state court as soon as possible.”

Abbott's second amicus brief came in another lawsuit filed by national gay rights group, Lambda Legal, in a bid to get a judge to uphold the mayor's change in policy.

Abbott argues that since the Lambda Legal lawsuit seeks to uphold the city's decision to offer benefits to same-sex marriage partners, there is no dispute for the federal court to decide. He asks that the Lambda Legal suit be dismissed.

The attorney general's office declined further comment.

The lawsuits center on Parker's decision to extend benefits to the same-sex spouses of city employees who were married in states where it is legal.

Same-sex marriage is not legal in Texas, nor are such marriages performed elsewhere recognized by the state. The legislature passed the Texas Defense of Marriage Act in 2003; two years later, voters approved a Texas constitutional amendment defining marriage as the “union of one man and one woman.”

Houston voters in 2001 approved a charter amendment banning the extension of benefits to the same-sex partners of city employees.

Parker's decision to change that policy relied on a legal opinion from City Attorney David Feldman that cited the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the federal Defense of Marriage Act last year, federal agencies' subsequent decisions to recognize legal same-sex marriages and other relevant case law.

“I was encouraged by the fact we have reinforcements,” Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill said of Abbott's briefs.

Jonathan Saenz, of the conservative advocacy group Texas Values, also lauded Abbott for his support.

The attorney general's filings come a week after Parker married her longtime partner, Kathy Hubbard, in California. In a statement announcing the marriage, the mayor's office said Hubbard has other options for insurance and will not seek city benefits.