A trio of city employees and their same sex spouses filed a federal suit Thursday to require the city of Houston to keep offering health insurance and other benefits for gay couples.

The legal action bats back at another ongoing suit that would ban the city from offering benefits to same-sex spouses and even required couples to pay back past benefits.

“Here we are in 2017 and we’re still having this conversation,” said Kenneth Upton, the Dallas-based Lambda Legal attorney representing the three married couples.


“They just want to do their jobs and get paid like everybody else.”

As the target of both suits, the city is essentially a bystander caught in the middle.

“While the city of Houston has been sued, the city understands that an important part of compensation to its employees is health coverage benefits available to each of them and their families,” Alan Bernstein, the mayor’s spokesman, said in a statement.

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Texas Supreme Court ruled that Houston isn’t obligated to provide same-sex spousal benefits to public employees. All nine justices ruled unanimously in the decision. While Texans do have the right to gay marriage, their spouses are not entitled to benefits like health insurance under the measure. Heterosexual spouses will still receive government-subsidized workplace benefits.


Media: Wibbitz

“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.’ “

The genesis of the new suit dates back to 2013, when a Supreme Court ruling impacting same sex marriage benefits prompted the city to reevaluate its own policies. On advice of city attorneys, then-Mayor Annise Parker started offering benefits to same-sex couples married outside of Texas.

But that November, Houston residents Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks filed suit against the city in state court, contending same sex benefits were an illegal use of taxpayer funds. They demanded the city cut off benefits and force same sex couples to pay back taxpayers for any spousal benefits received.

A year later, a Harris County civil court temporarily blocked the city from providing same-sex benefits, a ruling that held until July 2015, when the state’s 14th Court of Appeals removed the temporary injunction in light of another Supreme Court decision, Obergefell v. Hodges.

Though the landmark Obergefell case made gay marriage legal in every state, the Texas Supreme Court decided it was not explicit on whether same-sex spouses had a right to benefits.

So in June, the higher Texas court overturned on appeal a lower court’s decision, bouncing the Pidgeon and Hicks’ case back to a Harris County civil court.

In response, the city employees – Noel Freeman, a Public Works division manager; Houston police Sgt. Yadira Estrada; and network administrator Ronald Reeser – launched their federal lawsuit.

“It’s a pretty scary thing to have your health insurance taken away, especially if you rely on it,” Upton said.

“One of my clients is a police officer and if a police officer is ordinarily injured or killed in the line of duty, there are benefits to the surviving spouse – and my client wouldn’t have those same benefits. And yet she serves the city and protects the citizens just like other police officers do.”

Lawyers for Pidgeon and Hicks could not be reached for comment.

Rebecca Elliott contributed to this report