Two prominent county sheriffs and a group of law enforcement officers filed a brief in federal court Tuesday in support of gay marriage, saying the state has failed to give gay and lesbian first responders “the equal dignity and respect they deserve.”
“Gay and lesbian law enforcement officers and other first responders put on their uniforms, place themselves in harm’s way to protect and defend our communities, and swear to uphold our laws without prejudice or bias,” said the letter, filed by Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, more than 50 other Texans working in law enforcement and a coalition of city police departments from around the country.
The brief was filed in the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which will hear arguments over Texas’ constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in the coming months. Lawyers for the state appealed the case after District Judge Orlando Garcia struck down the ban in February.
In multiple cases before federal and state courts, gay and lesbian Texans are hoping to force the state to recognize same-sex marriages, including those granted outside of Texas and in instances of divorce. Opponents of gay marriage, meanwhile, are defending the state's constitutional ban and challenging local governments that have legally recognized same-sex couples, such as the city of Houston's recent expansion of benefits to cover same-sex spouses of city employees.
Jonathan Saenz, president of the conservative group Texas Values, said he is “thankful for the service of first responders” but that marriage should remain between a man and a woman. His group filed a friend-of-the-court brief in August in favor of the state ban.
“Strong families are founded on the ideal of a lifelong marriage of one man and one woman, and are firmly committed to preserving marriage as an institution inherently linked to procreation and childrearing, one that connects children to their mothers and fathers, for the good of children and society as a whole,” the brief said.
Popular opinion has shifted rapidly in favor of gay marriage in recent years, perhaps most visibly reflected in the outcome of last year's U.S. Supreme Court case U.S. v. Windsor, which required the federal government — but not states — to recognize same-sex marriages.
As gay rights activists have gained momentum, their opponents have taken a more moderate tone on the issue. Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is defending the state ban while running for governor, said earlier this year "there are good, well-meaning people on both sides" of the gay-marriage debate, and that it "will ultimately be resolved by a higher court."
Legal experts say the Texas case might make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to take up the question of same-sex marriage’s legality and issue a decision with national implications. Nineteen states plus the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to get married, and five gay marriage cases are now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, according to Freedom to Marry, a gay rights group.
Lower courts have issued conflicting rulings. Nineteen federal judges this year alone have ruled against gay-marriage bans, while a judge in Louisiana earlier this month bucked that trend, saying there is “simply no fundamental right, historically or traditionally, to same-sex marriage.”
Texas opponents of same-sex marriage say the issue is best left to voters and point to the overwhelming public vote that allowed the gay marriage ban to be added to the state constitution. In 2005, 76 percent of Texas voters approved an amendment that limited marriage in Texas to one man and one woman.
The suit before the 5th Circuit, which was brought by two couples, sought to overturn that ban on the basis of discrimination. Plaintiffs Nicole Dimetman and Cleopatra De Leon, who were married in Massachusetts in 2009, argued that the state had caused them undue hardship that heterosexual couples do not face. For example, Dimetman and De Leon have a child together, but only one parent's name was allowed on the birth certificate.
A coalition of clergy members and faith leaders also filed a brief on Tuesday in support of gay marriage.