In a somber and defiant statement, Attorney General Ken Paxton proclaimed his next battlefront would be in defense of 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,” he said. “It is not acceptable that people of faith be exposed to such abuse.”
Hours later, Gov. Greg Abbott sent a memo to the heads of state agencies directing them to “preserve, protect, and defend the religious liberty of every Texan.” That order “applies to any agency decision,” including granting or denying benefits, the memo says.
Abbott’s office directed questions about who would enforce such a policy to the attorney general. A spokeswoman for the attorney general did not immediately return to a request for comment.
Those celebrating the gay marriage ruling, including civil liberties groups and gay rights advocates, said Texas’ Republican leadership seemed to be picking a fight.
“I think a lot of us anticipated that this would be the next front, that there are going to be some public officials around the country who are going to try to use religious liberty as a way to avoid complying with the ruling,” said Rebecca Robertson, legal and policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “But we don’t agree that government offices that are open to the public should be able to pick and choose, on the basis of personal religious beliefs, which citizens to help and which citizens to turn away.”
Added Robertson: “We may end up having to litigate some of these issues.”
Daniel Williams, legislative director for the gay rights group Equality Texas, said that if a state agency employee denied spousal benefits to another employee in a same-sex marriage, it would be “setting itself up for a very short-lived legal challenge.”
“The ruling today was pretty explicit that the state may not impose upon same-sex couples a definition of marriage that excludes them,” he said.
Yes, there’s Paxton demanding to have his authoriteh respected, and Dan Patrick egging him on by asking if county clerks with “religious objections” can refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses. I’ve gotten whiplash following the saga in Harris County, but in the end Stan Stanart caved, after a bit of a push.
Delays in issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in Harris County led to a showdown between two elected officials Friday, hours after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states must recognize such unions.
County Attorney Vince Ryan will seek a court order compelling County Clerk Stan Stanart to issue licenses to same-sex couples, said Sue Davis, a spokeswoman for Ryan. Although couples in Dallas County, Bexar County (San Antonio) and Travis County (Austin) began obtaining licenses within hours of the Supreme Court ruling, Harris County couples still languished in the clerk’s office in the early afternoon.
Ryan, in a memo to Stanart, said, “Our opinion is that the law requires that you immediately begin to issue marriage licenses to all qualified applicants without regard to gender.”
Stanart’s office said it intended to issue the licenses, but said it was waiting for a form from the state attorney general with slots that did not indicate gender.
“We were told if we use the wrong form it will be null and void,” said George Hammerlein, a deputy clerk.
You can see a copy of Vince Ryan’s letter to Stanart here. The Harris County Clerk’s office began issuing same-sex marriage licenses at 3 PM, a few hours after several other counties had done so. (Clearly I was wrong to advise waiting, and that’s just fine by me.) Some other counties, not to mention other states, have not joined in. The Observer’s liveblog is the best resource for following the timeline. The Press had reported that one couple who had been turned away earlier in the day by the Harris County Clerk filed a lawsuit, but there were no details, and all that happened before Ryan’s intervention was reported. For sure, there will be some litigation, both in Texas and nationally. One fight ends, another begins.