Yesterday Americans United launched Protect Thy Neighbor (PTN), our new project designed to respond to claims that “religious freedom” gives people a right to discriminate against others and take away their rights.
PTN hits the ground running today with its first initiative: AU’s Legal Department is releasing a memo to every state attorney general in the country as well as every county clerk in the state of Texas, reminding them that they have a legal obligation to give wedding licenses and otherwise provide service to all qualified couples, including those who are of the same sex. (The memo will be sent to South Dakota county clerks later this week.)
This action is necessary for two reasons: One, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley have deliberately confused the issue by asserting county clerks may have a “religious freedom” right to refuse to service to some couples and two, some clerks have in fact turned away same-sex couples.
AU’s response is blunt: Government officials have no right to deny services to people.
The AU document reminds government employees that they may not remain on duty while refusing to serve same-sex couples. It rejects the idea that clerks and other officials whose job it is to faciliate marriages have a right to tell same-sex couples to visit another office, come back later (or another day) or obtain service from someone else.
The memo points out that actions like this demean and stigmatize same-sex couples. They are serious harms to human dignity. (The memo is still being finalized as I write this. If you want to read it, visit www.au.org later today. It will be posted.)
The Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision isn’t even two weeks old yet, and already we’re seeing a spate of efforts to resist it. Yesterday Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback issued an executive order that purports to protect “religious freedom” but that in reality is designed to undermine the court ruling.
Part of the order makes it clear that clergy can’t be forced to preside at same-sex weddings. This is sort of like issuing an order stating that people have the right to walk outside and breathe air – it’s unnecessary but mostly harmless.
But other parts of the order are far from harmless and would open the door to state-sponsored discrimination against LGBT people in the social service arena. For example, under Brownback’s order, a taxpayer-funded religious foster care agency could refuse to place children with otherwise qualified LGBT couples if they believe that would violate their “religious freedom.”
Many of us had hoped that, in the wake of the high court’s ruling, recalcitrant state and local officials would do the mature thing, accept reality and move on. After some initial defiance, that appeared to be the case. In Alabama, probate judges who didn’t want to issue licenses to same-sex couples gave up after Americans United and its allies threatened further legal action.
But it’s now obvious that some government officials will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into compliance with the law. They are determined to launch a 2015 LGBT-themed version of the “massive resistance” to racial integration that some Southern legislators championed in the 1950s.
The Religious Right is egging them on. The Liberty Counsel has offered to defend clerks who refuse to serve same-sex couples and is even urging clerks to sign a goofy “Declaration of Obedience to Law and Defense of Natural Marriage” – issued issued on the 4th of July, no less – that vows defiance.
In the long run, these people will lose. But it will take lots of work, including court action, to bring them around. Zealots who believe their religious views give them the right to ignore secular law and infringe on the rights of others have had their say. Through Protect Thy Neighbor, Americans United intends to respond aggressively.
One thing’s for certain: In the light of recent events, we at AU know that our new project won’t want for work. We could use your help. Like Protect Thy Neighbor on Facebook. Follow the project on Twitter. And read more about how to get involved here.