HOUSTON (Christian Examiner) – The American Civil Liberties Union has issued letters to two county clerk offices in the Houston area warning employees there that they must issue same-sex marriage licenses in spite of their religious objections to the practice.
In the letters to San Jacinto County Clerk Dawn Wright and Fayette County Clerk Julie Karstedt, ACLU Legal & Policy Director Rebecca Robertson told the clerks the organization had been informed they were not issuing the licenses because they believed gay marriage was wrong.
The ACLU letter said the law requires the clerks to issue the licenses "regardless of personal beliefs, and that county clerks who fail to do so risk removal from office and legal liability."
The clerks, the letter said, might have been acting under the assumption they could refuse to issue the licenses based on a recent statement by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Paxton said in a lengthy statement after the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide:
"This newly invented federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage should peaceably coexist alongside longstanding constitutional and statutory rights, including the rights to free exercise of religion and speech. This opinion concludes that:
"County clerks and their employees retain religious freedoms that may allow accommodation of their religious objections to issuing same-sex marriage licenses. The strength of any such claim depends on the particular facts of each case."
"It is important to note that any clerk who wishes to defend their religious objections and who chooses not to issue licenses may well face litigation and/or a fine. But, numerous lawyers stand ready to assist clerks defending their religious beliefs, in many cases on a pro-bono basis, and I will do everything I can from this office to be a public voice for those standing in defense of their rights," Paxton also said.
Robertson said in her letter to the county clerks that Paxton's advice was "less than clear," but that the law was "unambiguous."
According to the letter, Robertson also said the State of Texas had already acknowledged the ruling "imposes a duty" to permit same-sex marriage and has already revised its marriage application form to reflect the high court's ruling.
"Texas law clearly provides that county clerks have a duty to issue marriage licenses. Texas law provides that clerks "shall" issue licenses to eligible couples, leaving no room for personal discretion regarding whether to do so."
The letter warned the county clerks that they could be removed from office and "liable for damages in civil rights actions."
The ACLU letter acknowledged religious liberty as a fundamental right and an American value protected by the First Amendment, but that protection, the letter said, "has never meant officials can rely on their personal religious beliefs to discriminate against citizens seeking vital government services."
The county clerks Fayette and San Jacinto Counties, both near Houston, were not the only clerks to refuse to issue same-sex licenses. Immediately following the ruling, Hood County Katie Lang posted a notice that her office was not issuing same-sex marriage licenses.
Lang cited her religious beliefs as the reason, but also said the office had not been contacted by anyone seeking a license – except for reporters.
According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, at least four other counties – Bastrop, Burleson, Jackson and Ector – were also declining to issue same-sex marriage licenses. Other counties cited technology issues as a reason for delaying the issuance of licenses to gays and lesbians seeking to marry.
On Monday, State Sen. Rodney Ellis [D-Houston] sent a letter to the U.S. Attorney General's office complaining about the delays and asking it to "intervene, if necessary, to ensure that Texas officials do not flout the Supreme Court's ruling and blatantly discriminate against same-sex couples," the newspaper reported.
The ACLU told the dissenting clerks in the letter that they must accept limitations on their personal religious freedom. "No one is compelled to accept the responsibilities of being a public servant, but once a private citizen voluntarily undertakes that role, he cannot pick and choose which duties to perform," the letter said.
The letter also demanded the clerks confirm their intent to follow the law regarding the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples by July 6 at 5 p.m. It is unclear what action the ACLU planned to take if they were not contacted.
It is, however, unclear why the letters singled out both Karstedt and Wright. A statement on the Fayette County website notes, "Fayette County will be issuing marriage licenses reflecting the June 26, 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding same-sex marriage, beginning June 30, 2015."
The San Jacinto County Clerk's office also told Christian Examiner today that they, too, have begun to issue same-sex marriage licenses in accordance with the Supreme Court ruling.
In Hood County, Lang – who was threatened with a federal civil rights lawsuit – also said her office would issue same-sex marriage licenses. That, however, is not enough for those she offended. They are demanding her removal from office.
According to the Hood County News, Hood County Equality – a gay rights group – said it was planning a rally to call for her firing.
Ironically, the group which clearly does not believe what the Bible says about homosexuality, is using Bible verses, including James 5:12 and Matthew 5:34-37, to call for Lang's removal.