Resistance Is Futile: Some County Clerks Say ‘I Won’t’ To Marriage Equality

Government employees have two choices: follow the law and serve everyone who is legally qualified to marry or resign.

One week ago, the U.S. Supreme Court extended marriage equality nationwide. So where are we now?

To no one’s surprise, leaders of the Religious Right and some of their political allies have been huffing and puffing. The U.S. Catholic bishops didn’t much like it either.

That was to be expected. To me, the more interesting question was how government officials would react. I don’t mean the governors of red states or would-be GOP presidents. I’m interested in the reaction of the people on the ground.

Before this decision came down, some local officials were bloviating about how they would never abide by it. Some county clerks began arguing that they have a “religious freedom” right to refuse to deal with same-sex couples.

Some are still arguing that. In Rowan County, Ky., Kim Davis, the county clerk, has been turning away same-sex couples. She tells them to go to another county.

“It’s a deep-rooted conviction; my conscience won’t allow me to do that,” the Associated Press quoted Davis as saying. “It goes against everything I hold dear, everything sacred in my life.”

Other clerks in the Bluegrass State started off talking about how they would refuse but have accepted reality and are now issuing licenses to all couples, opposite-sex and same-sex. A few others have quit rather than follow the ruling.

Katie Lang, a clerk in Hood County, Texas, is refusing to issue licenses to same-sex couples. Lang has received support from one cleric who doesn’t even live anywhere near her: Thomas J. Tobin, the Catholic bishop of Providence, R.I., called Lang “courageous” and urged others to emulate her. 

In Alabama, probate judges, county-level officials who are responsible for issuing marriage licenses, are slowly coming around. But it hasn’t been easy. Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights are representing five same-sex couples in the state who were denied the right to marry prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling. The groups had to go back to court and ask a federal judge to issue a new statement making it clear that these probate judges must follow the law.

U.S. District Judge Callie V.S. Granade did so immediately. But, remarkably, a handful of probate judges continue to hold out. Their defiance may have consequences. AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan told the Montgomery Advertiser, “If any probate judges persist in violating it, we would seek a finding of contempt from the court, which would result in the imposition of fines for every day of noncompliance, an award of attorneys’ fees for litigating the motion, and any remedies the court deems appropriate.”

(If you ever wonder if your support of AU and other groups makes a difference, just read this story.)

AU doesn’t intend to let up in Alabama or in other states. These people are government employees. They have two choices: follow the law and serve everyone who is legally qualified to marry or resign.

In Grenada County, Miss., Circuit Clerk Linda Barnette did just that. In a letter of resignation she wrote, “The Supreme Court’s decision violates my core values as a Christian. My final authority is the Bible. I cannot in all good conscience issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples under my name because the Bible clearly teaches that homosexuality is contrary to God's plan and purpose for marriage and family.”

While I disagree strongly with Barnette’s theological views on marriage equality, I acknowledge that she did the right thing here. Rather than try to hang on and feed at the public trough when she was not willing to serve all of the public, she quit.

Religious Right groups are portraying these clerks as martyrs and heroes. These people are neither. Rather, they are simply fundamentalist zealots who have decided that their personal biases should trump secular law. The sooner they quit, the better off we’ll all be.