In Texas, a Flat-Footed Response to Marriage Equality

Update 2:40 pm: The Harris County Clerk's Office says it will start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples at 3 pm. Chief deputy George Hammerlein tells us: "We have told the Lt. Governor, and AG, that we will proceed at three with or without the updated form." Unlike other Texas counties, Stanart's office says it has no plans to offer extended hours today or into next week. Couples who are in line by 4:30pm should be able to obtain a license. 

At just after 10 o’clock Friday morning, John LaRue and Hunter Middleton walked into the Harris County Clerk’s Office to ask for something that’s long been denied same-sex couples in Texas. “Excuse me,” LaRue asked a woman behind the desk, “we’d like to apply for a marriage license.” 

Sorry, the woman told the couple. “We don’t have the right forms. We’re waiting on the changes from the state.”

Chris Whatley and Roy Burchett got a similar response out in Galveston County. This morning Whatley and Burchett, partners for nearly 20 years, woke up and saw news of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned state gay-marriage bans and affirmed marriage rights for same-sex couples across the country. Whatley says they wanted to celebrate the ruling with a marriage license. "It's such an important day," Whatley says. "We thought it'd be pretty cool to have that date, the 26th, on our paperwork." 

Instead, workers at the clerk's office told Whatley and Burchett they'd have to wait. "They said they are not issuing same sex couples marriage licenses, that it’s not legal yet and that they’re waiting on the direction of the Texas Attorney General,” Whatley tells the Houston Press. “And then, in the next breath, they told us some counties are issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples. … They didn’t know what counties those were, but said we’re more than welcome to call around and find out for ourselves.” 

As people cheer the High Court’s landmark ruling, same-sex couples in Texas are finding that whether you can get a marriage license depends on what county you’re in. While same-sex couples in Dallas, San Antonio and Austin have already been issued marriage licenses, Houston couples are still waiting as state officials outspokenly opposed to gay marriage drag their feet. 

In anticipation of Friday morning’s Supreme Court ruling, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick asked state Attorney General Ken Paxton for a formal opinion on whether county clerks or employees have the right to refuse licenses to gay couples because of their religious objections. Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart — who just earlier this month told us a ruling in favor of gay marriage would be "destroying an institution" — is one of several county officials across the state who maintain they can’t tweak the current state-issued marriage license application forms (which, as we’ve noted before, isn’t rocket science and only requires removing the words “male” or “female”) without the express approval of the state AG’s office. 

It’s still unclear when that might happen. Paxton, who said he was “prayerful" the court would "heed millennia of family, Judeo-Christian instruction,” has already asked county clerks and justices of the peace to “wait for direction and clarity from this office about the meaning of the Court’s opinion and the rights of Texans under the law.” Still, it's not as if Friday's SCOTUS ruling was ambiguous. As Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, said in his ruling: "No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. (Same-sex couples) ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that."

As of this writing, Stanart says he’s still waiting on the updated forms from Paxton’s office and says that no marriage licenses will be granted, period, until that’s taken care of — however, hererosexual couples who sought licenses this morning before LaRue and Middleton were denied theirs seemed to have no problem getting one. And while Paxton’s office hasn’t yet changed the marriage license application form, he did manage to to find the time to come out with a whopper statement slamming the SCOTUS ruling. :
“We start by recognizing the primacy and importance of our first freedom – religious liberty. The truth is that the debate over the issue of marriage has increasingly devolved into personal and economic aggression against people of faith who have sought to live their lives consistent with their sincerely-held religious beliefs about marriage. In numerous incidents trumpeted and celebrated by a sympathetic media, progressives advocating the anti-traditional marriage agenda have used this issue to publicly mock, deride, and intimidate devout individuals for daring to believe differently than they do. This ruling will likely only embolden those who seek to punish people who take personal, moral stands based upon their conscience and the teachings of their religion."
Gov. Greg Abbott was similarly defiant: 
While Stanart drags his feet, LaRue has just filed a lawsuit that aims to force Harris County to begin issuing marriage licenses. "By denying the issuance of a marriage license to Plaintiffs, Stanart and those working in concert with him have deprived Plaintiffs of their Constitutional rights," the lawsuit states. 

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, which earlier this morning sent Stanart a letter urging him to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples without waiting on the AG's approval, says he plans to request a court order that would force Stanart to abide by the Supreme Court's ruling.

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Michael Barajas
Contact: Michael Barajas
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