Texas Bill Would Allow Clerks to Refuse to Issue Same-Sex Marriage Licenses

LGBT Texans have been guaranteed the right to marry by the U.S. Supreme Court, but that has not stopped the Texas Legislature from trying to undermine that right.
LGBT Texans have been guaranteed the right to marry by the U.S. Supreme Court, but that has not stopped the Texas Legislature from trying to undermine that right. Photo by flickr/torbakhopper
This June will mark two years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to legalize gay marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, but even now Texas lawmakers are still trying to chip away the rights brought to same-sex couples by that landmark decision.

When the 85th Biennial Texas Legislative Session opened in January a pair of Republican state senators, Charles Perry of Lubbock and Brian Birdwell of Granbury, filed Senate Bill 522, which would allow county clerks to opt out of signing marriage licenses for gay couples if the clerk in question finds that doing so would violate "sincerely held religious beliefs."

The bill has been moving along through the works of the Legislature. Last Thursday the Senate Affairs Committee heard testimony on SB 522. That alone was enough to stir the ire of the Texas Freedom Network which issued a release condemning the proposed legislation, which the group maintains is so broad it would allow public officials to discriminate against virtually anyone.

"Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillment to those who find meaning in the secular realm. Its dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone, for a marriage becomes greater than just the two persons. Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion he penned in Obergefell.

Detractors say SB 522 is particularly troubling, since it digs at the most basic legal process of getting hitched married and obtaining a marriage license from the county clerk. Instead of having to perform their sworn duties as clerks, if SB 522 becomes law clerks woudl be able to delegate that role to deputy clerks, judges or magistrates.

If none of those people feel up to providing homosexual couples with their Constitutional right to legally wed, county commissioners will also have the option of appointing a "certifying official," which can be a regular employee or a contractor. And if they can't find a certifying official in the county, couples will have to go to another county to find an official who will sign their license.

Proponents of the bill say that this measure will simply guarantee government employees are not forced to do things that violate their own religious beliefs. “Everyone should be free to peacefully live and work according to their convictions without fear of being punished by the government,” said Jonathan Saenz, President of Texas Values said when he was promoting SB 522 and the slew of other bills filed this legislative session, back in February.

Of course, SB 522 isn't the only bill of this sort filed in the Legislature. In fact, SB 522 is only one of 17 bills filed this legislative session that are being celebrated by conservatives as methods of protecting religious liberty. Other bills propose to allow all kinds of religious outs to avoid serving LGBT customers, including HB 2876 which would allow wedding industry workers to discriminate against same-sex couples, and HB 3571 which would allow just about any business to refuse to serve gay people if the business couches the refusal in "religious reasons." And there are other similar bills knocking around Austin.

Texas Freedom Network and the American Civil Liberties Union are working against SB 522 and similar bills, dismissing the conservative defenders who insist this is about religious liberty, not government-sanctioned discrimination. Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller pointed out SB 522 would allow government employees whose salaries are furnished by taxpayers to simply refuse to do their jobs in certain situations, and to actually discriminate against the public, the people who pay taxes.

"This bill makes a mockery of religious freedom by allowing public officials to discriminate against virtually anyone who fails to meet their personal moral standards," Miller wrote, according to the release. "That could include same-sex couples but also people who have been previously divorced, couples who have lived together outside of marriage, interfaith couples and many others."
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray