Marriage Mischief: Religious Right Lawyers Give States Bad Advice

Government employees are expected to serve everyone who comes through the door without bias.

Travel back in time with me for a moment. It’s 1956, and we’re in the Deep South. An interracial couple approaches the county clerk to apply for a marriage license. The clerk says, “Oh, no! Don’t you know that the Bible mandates separation of the races? I refuse to give you a license because it violates my religious beliefs.”

Now let’s move ahead in time. It’s 2013, and marriage equality is the law of the land in Maryland. A same-sex couple approaches the county clerk to apply for a marriage license. The clerk says, “No way! Don’t you know that the Bible condemns same-sex marriage? I refuse to give you a license because it violates my religious beliefs.”

What do you think should happen to the clerk in each case? If you say, “The clerk ought to be fired,” then we’re on the same page.

This issue has come up because three states – Maryland, Maine and Washington – voted to approve marriage equality earlier this month. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Religious Right legal group founded by TV and radio preachers, responded to this by sending a memo to officials in each state telling them that clerks do not have to provide licenses to same-sex couples.

Where did the ADF get this? Well, the group’s lawyers just made it up. The ADF claims there are laws in each state that protect clerks who don’t want to issue licenses to same-sex couples. I looked up the laws cited by the ADF, and that’s not what they say. In fact, these laws merely state that county clerks may hire assistants to help them with their workload and that some duties may be delegated to these assistants.

Sure, if a county clerk doesn’t want to issue a license to a same-sex couple, he or she could ask an assistant to do it. But what if the assistant won’t do it either? Or what if the assistant is out sick that day? Or what if there simply is no assistant? Many small counties may hire just one clerk, after all.

Government employees are expected to serve everyone who comes through the door without bias. The law in Maryland, Maine and Washington now permits same-sex couples to wed. Any government official who does not want to provide the necessary paperwork to make it possible for people to exercise their legal rights needs to find another job now.

We’ve stated many times in this blog that marriage equality presents no threat to the religious groups that oppose it. No member of the clergy will ever be forced to officiate at a same-sex wedding. The First Amendment protects against that.

Members of the clergy have the right to discriminate and to insist that couples seeking a wedding ceremony meet certain theological requirements. Government officials are a different matter. They have absolutely no right to interject their personal religious beliefs into a state transaction – especially something as passive as issuing a wedding license.

What’s next? An Amish guy gets hired by the Department of Motor Vehicles and refuses to renew your driver’s license because there are no cars in the Bible?

I don’t know what will happen to the memo the ADF is sending to state officials. I’d advise them toss it into the nearest circular file. It’s for their own good. Any state that tells its employees that they have a right to deny services to citizens – services those people are legally entitled to – is asking to be sued.