The Harris County Clerk isn’t ready for you and won’t be for at least a little while.
Should the U.S. Supreme court decide to strike down same-sex marriage bans nationwide, a decision that could come as soon as Thursday, county clerks in all but one of Texas’ biggest counties are ready to begin issuing marriage licenses to applicants.
The one is Harris County, where County Clerk Stan Stanart said he would await for state guidance before approving license applications.
“I shouldn’t be making up law or processes that are controlled by the state,” Stanart said ahead of the Supreme Court’s ruling, adding that he would not offer extended business hours to handle a potential influx of applicants and would not move to modify the state’s license application form to accommodate applicants of the same gender.
Now, many Harris County judges are quick to say they would officiate same-sex weddings.
“As long as they have a valid Texas marriage license, then I don’t believe that it’s my job to make any kind of value decision as to whether these two people should be married,” said Don Coffey, a Harris County Justice of the Peace in precinct 3, which covers Baytown. “I would think, and I would hope, that my colleagues would view it in the same way.”
Fellow Justice of the Peace in the East End’s precinct 6 Armando Rodriguez agreed.
“We’re elected to apply the law, not interpret it,” he said.
Although private citizens may decline to perform marriages that would cause them to “violate a sincerely held religious belief,” in accordance with the “Pastor Protection Act” signed into law earlier this month, that exception does not extend to state officials.
“If the U.S. Supreme Court would announce that there is a constitutionally-based, federally constitutionally-based right for gay couples to marry, that would mean that state officials could not frustrate that right,” University of Houston Law School Professor Thomas Oldham said in anticipation of the Court’s decision.
Judges are not required to perform marriages, but to the extent that they do, Oldham said, they would not be allowed to have a different policy for gay couples than for heterosexual couples.
1. We knew this already. Given the almost certain response from AG Ken Paxton and the rest of the state’s Republican leadership, it is understandable that a guy like Stan Stanart would choose to wait and let the initial storm pass by before sticking his neck out. Cowardly, to be sure, but understandable. Other counties are options if you just can’t wait. Here are instructions for getting a marriage license in Bexar County, for instance.
2. Having said that, there’s this:
If the U.S. Supreme Court rules in the coming days that same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wants county clerks to hold off on issuing marriage licenses to such couples until his office has given them direction.
“I remain prayerful that the Court will heed millennia of family tradition, Judeo-Christian instruction and common sense and will respect the role of states,” Paxton said in a statement Thursday. “But whatever the ruling, I would recommend that all County Clerks and Justices of the Peace wait for direction and clarity from this office about the meaning of the Court’s opinion and the rights of Texans under the law.”
Neel Lane, the attorney representing the two same-sex couples challenging Texas’ ban, said the attorney general will have no standing to delay the issuance of marriage licenses if the Supreme Court rules that same-sex marriage is the law of the land.
“Attorney generals aren’t supposed to be in the business of praying but in the business of interpreting the law, and in this case the Supreme Court is going to be quite clear when it rules,” Lane said. “Clerks should not delay any further.”
Ken Paxton doesn’t care about any of that. It’s going to take courts and judges in Texas that do care about the law to swat him down and make the Clerks do their duty. How long that takes, and hoe many fellow travelers of Paxton’s abet in gumming things up, those are the questions.
3. I’m glad to see that all of the Harris County judges quoted in this story are happy, or at least compliant, about performing same-sex weddings, once all the hissy fits and pointless legal maneuvering by our AG have run their course. I will be more than a little shocked if there isn’t at least one judge in Harris County, and quite a few more around the state, who won’t be so accommodating. Judges and JPs don’t fall under the umbrella of the pointless pastor protection law since they are public officials, but they are not required to perform weddings and thus could avoid officiating same sex ceremonies by simply not doing any weddings or maybe just doing them for family and friends. They can’t simply choose to exclude only same sex participants. I feel certain that someone will be accused of doing this, sooner rather than later; in fact, I’ll bet that some judge somewhere gets boastful about it. I rather expect that one’s willingness to do the honors at a same sex wedding will be an issue in some GOP primaries around the state. I won’t be at all surprised if a puffed-up pecksniff like Steven Hotze makes being truculent about it a requirement for his endorsement this March.
4. As always, if you are unhappy with the state of affairs, from our AG to our County Clerk to whichever judge or judges gets ornery about the new reality, the one means of retribution you have for it is at the ballot box. This will all eventually cease to be an issue someday, but if you want that someday to be closer to today than it would on its own, it’s on you to do something about it via the electoral process.