An employee at a county clerk’s office in Indiana who was fired because she refused to process marriage licenses for same-sex couples claims her “religious freedom” rights have been violated. So now she’s suing.
Linda Summers, an employee in Harrison County, was fired last year for her refusal to fully perform her job requirements – specifically issuing marriage licenses for all qualified couples.
Before her termination in December, Summers delivered a hand-written note to her supervisor, County Clerk Sally Whitis. The note explained that Summers would not issue licenses to gay couples and asked for an accommodation. Her taxpayer-funded employment ended shortly thereafter.
Summers declined to comment to the Louisville Courier-Journal, but her attorney said she believes “homosexuality is a sin” and it would be “a sin for her to engage in” processing marriage applications for same-sex couples.
I wonder if Summers has ever “sinned” before in the process of doing her job? Has she processed applications for adulterers? How about couples on their second, third or fourth marriages? Would she turn away a couple with a child born out of wedlock?
In reality, Summers was not fired for her religious beliefs – even though that’s what the Religious Right wants you to think. The truth is she was fired for insubordination. According to Summers’ court filing, Harrison County policy states that “refusing to perform assigned work or to comply with written or verbal instructions of supervisors,” will subject “the individual involved to disciplinary action, up to and including termination.”
All employees in the clerk’s office had previously received a directive to comply with marriage equality rulings. Summers felt she deserved an exemption from that requirement. Her boss thought otherwise and rightly fired her.
Summers now joins a long line of clerks and other public employees who are resisting marriage equality. Some clerks have resigned rather than give marriage licenses to gay couples. Some are suing for the right not to issue licenses to same-sex couples. Still others are engaged in a stalemate of sorts, not yet having been fired over their refusals but also unwilling to quit.
But Summers may hold the distinction as the first county employee in the United States fired for refusing to process marriage applications. She likely won’t be the last.
As taxpayer-funded entities, county clerk’s offices are required to comply with all laws. If they are permitted to skirt that requirement, then the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges is undermined.
As for Summers and others in her position, no one can force them to issue marriage licenses if they don’t want to do so. That does not mean, however, that clerks have the freedom to pick and choose what job duties they will and will not perform. Since Summers would not do her job, firing her was the only option for Harrison County. Most any employer, public or private, would likely have done the same with an insubordinate employee.
What the Religious Right does not seem to understand is that this is not a case of “religious freedom” being violated. Summers is not going to jail. Her life is not in danger. She was not forced to do anything that she considers to be sinful. But the First Amendment is not necessarily a consequence-free guarantee. Yes, Summers has the right to adhere to her religious beliefs. But if those beliefs come in conflict with the law, then there is going to be a problem.
Before the marriage equality dust settles, it seems quite a few clerks will be looking for work. That is their choice. Clerks do not deserve an exemption from obeying the law so that they may discriminate against LGBT persons. Anyone who feels otherwise will likely end up with Summers – in the unemployment line.