Protect Thy Neighbor: Fighting Against Marriage License Refusals

For millions of Americans, the decision that the Supreme Court handed down in Obergefell v. Hodges a few weeks ago represented a victory second to few others, moving our country in a more equitable, just and fair direction. Finally, it seemed, the day when couples -- regardless of orientation -- could receive a marriage license without hesitation seemed near.

Many of those Americans were devastated to see videos like these surfacing: instances of county clerks citing their religious beliefs and refusing to grant licenses to couples seeking to exercise their newly protected right to marry. In counties across the country, clerks responsible for administering licenses still refuse to follow the law, inspired by misguided rhetoric. One such example is demonstrated by the actions of Katie Lang, a clerk in Hood County, Texas. Lang has brewed a maelstrom in Texas after refusing to grant licenses to a same-sex couple and posting the following statement on her website:

The religious doctrines to which I adhere compel me to personally refrain from issuing same-sex marriage licenses. Nonetheless, the County Clerk's Office of Hood County will have staff available and ready to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

I am grateful that the First Amendment continues to protect the sincerely held religious beliefs of public servants like me. As Justice Kennedy states, "it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere convictions that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned."

Lang, of course, is correct: she may continue to advocate that same-sex marriage should not be condoned. That is a right guaranteed to her by the First Amendment. However, once she assumes the responsibility of a county clerk, she represents the state. The state, as decided in Obergefell v. Hodges, must issue same-sex licenses to couples. It is not up to Lang, regardless of whether other clerks in her office issue licenses, whether she may or may not issue them. To refuse to issue marriage licenses, in fact, represents a subversion of the state: an attitude deeply dangerous to democracy and the rule of law. In this sense, Lang's attitude is not only discriminatory, but also a threat to the values and ideals on which this country is founded.

It is ironic, and even irresponsible, that clerks such as Lang hide behind the mantle of religious freedom. Nobody is interested in taking away Lang's freedom to speak and act as she sees fit as a private citizen. When she walks out of the doors of the clerk's office in Hood County, she may do as she pleases. But, efforts like hers to subvert the law cannot be condoned. It is for this reason why we should pay attention to an initiative started by Americans United for Separation of Church and State called Protect Thy Neighbor. If county clerks are not willing to stand for their fellow Americans, it is up to the rest of us to do so. Couples who are refused marriage licenses can report the refusal to Americans United, which stands ready to uphold the rule of law when those responsible for its fair administration fail to do so.

The sort of mentality among local public officials represented by Katie Lang does not solely affect marriage licenses, if gone unchecked. If we permit religious freedom to become the veil behind which discrimination may persist, we run the risk of endangering Americans' access to healthcare, reproductive freedom, and access to taxpayer-funded services provided by contractors. For religious Americans, this means reminding the country that religious freedom does not give license to selective interpretation of the law. For all Americans, regardless of one's religious background, this means using religious freedom to celebrate our country's diversity, rather than co-opting the ideal in order to repress our neighbors.