AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- The Texas Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a Houston case that top Republicans hope will provide an opening to chip away at the landmark 2015 ruling legalizing gay marriage nationwide.
A coalition of religious and social conservatives sued America's fourth-largest city in 2013, challenging its decision to offer same-sex spousal benefits to municipal employees. Last year, Texas' elected, all-Republican court refused to hear the matter on appeal, effectively allowing the marriage benefits in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that the Constitution grants gay couples seeking to marry "equal dignity in the eyes of the law."
But the state Supreme Court reversed itself in January, amid pressure from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton, as well as dozens of other conservative elected officials, church leaders and grassroots activists. They filed a parade of briefs saying the case may help Texas limit the scope of the Supreme Court ruling — especially in how it's applied to states.
Texas' highest civil court reconsidering a previous decision is unusual, but not unprecedented. As a result, justices listened to about 50 minutes of arguments. A ruling isn't expected for months.
Jonathan Mitchell, an attorney representing the groups suing, said that though the U.S. Supreme court ruling legalized gay marriage, it doesn't require governmental entities to offer taxpayer-funded, same-sex benefits to their employees.
"The meaning and scope of Obergefell remain open to debate," Mitchell said.
He further argued that the nation's highest court didn't declare spousal benefits a fundamental right of marriage, meaning it should be up to the states to decide the legality of offering them. Lawyer Douglas Alexander, appearing on Houston's behalf, agreed that such benefits weren't a fundamental right but said that the nation's high court's ruling means that all marriages are equal, so anything offered to opposite-sex couples must be offered to same-sex ones as well.
"Obergefell answers every question in this case," Alexander said.
The groups suing have further pointed to the case as a chance for the Texas Supreme Court to defend religious liberty and take a stand on social issues, arguing that state justices should challenge not only the U.S. Supreme Court's legalization of gay marriage but also its striking down last summer of many of the state's tough abortion restrictions.
Houston counters that the case is a matter of settled law and shouldn't have anything to do with advancing social conservative causes.
The justices asked frequent questions Wednesday, including interrupting Mitchell barely a minute into his opening arguments. Many wondered about the court's jurisdiction in a matter involving a municipal decision over spousal benefits when the marriage question had already been decided nationally.
Mitchell said Texas' governor and others in filings have argued that "an opinion of the Supreme Court does not have the same status as constitutional text," because, if it did, the nation's high court would never be able to rule against its own precedents.
Jared Woodfill, a conservative activist at the center of the case, said afterward that he hopes this case will reach the U.S. Supreme Court, which could then rule on the "invalid expansion" of its 2015 decision. The office of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner released a statement saying the city "is confident that the Texas Supreme Court will follow its practice of requiring strict compliance with decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court."
Texas voters had in 2005 approved a state ban on gay marriage, and attorney general Paxton initially suggested that county clerks with personal religious objections could defy the U.S. Supreme Court order and refuse to issue marriage licenses for same sex couples. But gay marriages have been unimpeded in the state since then.
Texas isn't the first state to go down this legal road. Last March, the Alabama Supreme Court dismissed a challenge seeking to bar gay marriage there in defiance the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling.