County Clerk Associations in Hot Spot Over Same-Sex Marriage

In the days after the Supreme Court ruling upholding the right of same-sex couples to marry, county clerk associations struggled with mixed messages from state officials about when and how to implement the ruling---and, in some cases, with members’ own objections to the decision.

Editor’s Note: This story has been revised to clarify its intent, which was to report on the response of county clerks’ associations to the Supreme Court ruling in jurisdictions where implementation was in question based on comments from some state officials.

The issues around same-sex marriage are at once intensely personal and politically controversial.

For some people it’s an identity-rights issue; for others, a religious-freedom issue. And for others still, it’s a state’s rights issue. And caught in the middle of this are the county clerks who issue the marriage licenses.

The associations that represent the clerks are struggling to figure out the best way to respond to the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling making same-sex marriage legal across the land.

Louisiana’s Shifting Stance

To give you an idea of the issues at hand, look no further than Louisiana, where the Louisiana Clerks of Court Association (LCCA) has gone back and forth on whether to recommend that its members hand out marriage licenses to same-sex couples, a decision made even more difficult by the fact that the state’s governor and attorney general have both publicly spoken out against the ruling.

Immediately after the ruling, the association recommended that its members not hand out licenses for 25 days in case the Supreme Court should decide to hold a rehearing of the case. But last weekend, the advocacy group Forum for Equality warned the association that the 25-day period was not required and could put the association’s members in danger of legal action. On Tuesday, the association shifted gears once again, noting the inconsistency of the rollout of licenses in the state.

“While the association believes that implementation of changes relative to marriage licenses should have been done by the parish clerks simultaneously with the Office of Vital Records, differing implementation times has and will continue to create confusion,” LCCA Executive Director Debbie Hudnall wrote in an email to members, according to The New Orleans Advocate. “The association, therefore, suggests that parish clerks begin implementation of changes in procedures for the issuance of marriage licenses consistent with last week’s Supreme Court opinion. So our attorney says you can issue the license as soon as your office is ready to do so.”

An Association President Wavers

Other states have faced similar challenges. Chris Jobe, the president of the Kentucky County Clerk’s Association and the clerk of Lawrence County, found his county in the middle of a debate over the high court ruling, which Jobe said he opposes. Initially, Lawrence County held off from offering marriage licenses entirely.

“There’s other clerks that feel the same way I do,” Jobe told WSAZ on Tuesday. “It’s very disturbing. We were hoping the state would stand with us. It’s like we had no choice in this decision. It’s very troubling.”

In the end, Jobe and his staff complied with the ruling to avoid the possibility of facing legal action. “I don’t believe in the decision,” he told The Courier-Journal. “But I don’t want to deprive other citizens from obtaining marriage licenses. I have to do my duty.”

Meanwhile, in Arkansas, a county clerk resigned rather than issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. That’s an option that clerks with moral objections to the ruling are free to choose, said Sam Marcosson, a constitutional law professor at the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville, in an interview with the Associated Press.

“If it means that you simply cannot fulfill your duties because of your religious beliefs, what is required of you is that you can no longer hold that office,” Marcosson said. “That applies to a judge, that applies to a senator, that applies to anyone who holds public office.”

(iStock Editorial/Thinkstock)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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