By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - The Texas Supreme Court ruled on Friday that same-sex couples are not necessarily entitled to government-dispensed spousal benefits, dealing a blow to backers of marriage equality, who have vowed to fight the decision.
The Republican-dominated court said the landmark 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges, which made same-sex marriage legal nationwide, did not resolve issues such as payments of municipal employees' spousal benefits.
"The Supreme Court held in Obergefell that the Constitution requires states to license and recognize same-sex marriages to the same extent that they license and recognize opposite-sex marriages," the Texas court wrote, "but it did not hold that states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons."
The Texas Supreme Court sent the case back to a lower court, adding that it could not reach a decision on whether to grant the plaintiff's request to claw back previously paid benefits.
Texas Values, an activist group for social conservatives, and Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, who supported the challenge on the benefits, applauded the decision.
"While the U.S. Supreme Court declared a right to same-sex marriage, that ruling did not resolve all legal issues related to marriage," Paxton said in a statement.
In 2013, two Houston taxpayers, backed by Texas Republican leaders, sued the city after then-Mayor Annise Parker gave municipal spousal benefits to same-sex couples married in places where the unions were recognized.
At the time, Texas had a constitutional amendment that barred same-sex marriage. That law was later struck down.
The plaintiffs, Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, a pastor and an accountant, argued that the top U.S. court's same-sex marriage decision was poorly reasoned and same-sex couples were not entitled to spousal employment benefits.
Rights groups for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people contended the plaintiffs were trying to erode the U.S. Supreme Court's decision.
“This absurd contortion of the Obergefell ruling defies all logic and reason," said Kenneth Upton, senior counsel in LGBT rights legal group Lambda Legal’s Dallas office.
LGBT rights groups have said they intended to appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if Texas courts decide against them.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a state court ruling allowing Arkansas to refuse to list both same-sex spouses on birth certificates, clarifying the scope of protections provided by its gay marriage decision.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; editing by Colleen Jenkins and Taylor Harris)