There’s more than just one Kim Davis. In light of the Kentucky county clerk’s return to work after a six-day stint in jail, officials from across the country are boycotting their marriage licensing duties.
Refusing to grant licenses or facilitate ceremonies, these local government workers are prompting a national conversation on individual religious rights, as well as attracting criticism from supporters of same-sex marriage.
North Carolina, for instance, passed a law in June that allows public officials to forgo performing marriage rites on the grounds of religious objections. Since then, 32 magistrates — out of the total 672 — have done so. In McDowell County, all four magistrate judges have recused themselves from granting marriage to all couples. This requires a magistrate from another county to perform the deed three days a week.
In Alabama, 67 counties have stopped issuing marriage licenses, though their defiance began before the Supreme Court ruling in June and before Davis landed in the national spotlight. Under the state’s law, probate judges may issue marriage licenses, but have no obligation to do so.
Nick Williams, a Washington County probate judge, told The Wall Street Journal he stopped issuing licenses immediately after the US Supreme Court ruling in June that legalized same-sex marriage. He says it was “ill-advised” and “invalid,” because marriage should be based on a state-by-state standard.
“By not issuing licenses to anyone, I’m not discriminating against anyone,” Judge Williams says.
Indeed, some gay marriage advocates agree – if no one is getting a license, then there’s no practical prejudice.
A spokesperson for Freedom to Marry, which supports legalizing gay marriage, told the Guardian “we don’t see this as discrimination.” But Susan Watson, the executive director of Alabama’s ACLU, said her organization is looking for ways to encourage the abstaining judges to resume their duties.
In Utah, a religious objection law allows county clerks to opt out of performing the ceremony of marriage while still requiring them to issue the licenses.
“While I issue every marriage license as a legal obligation without personal judgment, my conscience does not allow me to voluntarily officiate a same-sex marriage,” Ricky Hatch, the clerk of Utah’s Weber county, told the Guardian. “My decision does not prevent the marriage from taking place, but I am also not personally promoting the practice. I should also mention that the decision to not perform marriage ceremonies in our office applies equally to all couples.”
Still, experts are weighing in on whether the religious objection laws are constitutional. Some believe that giving certain individuals special exemption allows their personal religious beliefs to seep into state policy. Some have even stronger conviction against the laws. HBO talk show host Bill Maher compares the prioritization of religion over the authority of the law to sharia law.
“They all got out there and said, ‘God’s law supersedes the courts,' which actually is a very strong legal argument – in Saudi Arabia, but not here in America,” Maher said.