Amanda Abramovich and Samantha Brookover should have only happy memories of Feb. 3, 2016. After all, it is the day the high-school sweethearts applied for their marriage license.
But due to the abusive actions of a few county clerks, it is a day that Abramovich and Brookover remember with dread.
“This year when we realized our anniversary was approaching, we got knots in our stomachs,” the couple said in a statement released by Americans United. “This is the feeling we will have every year rather than the happiness of finally being legally married.”
So they’ve decided to do something about it. To fight the discriminatory treatment they faced, the couple became plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed in April by AU and its allies at the LGBTQ-rights organization Fairness West Virginia and the law firm Mayer Brown.
When Abramovich and Brookover went to the Gilmer County Clerk’s office that February day, they weren’t anticipating any problems. After all, marriage for same-sex couples had been legalized nationwide more than six months earlier by the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges.
And it had been 16 months since marriage equality arrived in West Virginia, after then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin ordered state agencies to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples on Oct. 9, 2014. Tomblin’s announcement came in response to the U.S. Supreme Court declining to hear arguments in a Virginia marriage-equality case, letting stand the decision of a federal appeals court – one with jurisdiction in West Virginia – that overturned a ban on same-sex marriage.
Thus, when Abramovich and Brookover walked into the Gilmer County Courthouse in Glenville last year, they were prepared to celebrate a milestone. They were joined by family members. They had a camera ready to capture the event.
They weren’t expecting to leave the courthouse with Brookover in tears and Abramovich shaking with emotion. They weren’t expecting to face the humiliation, harassment and intimidation doled out by Deputy Clerk Debbie Allen and others in the Gilmer County Clerk’s office.
Allen did not react as government officials should when Abramovich and Brookover asked her to complete an application for a marriage license – a routine part of her job. Instead, Allen slammed down paperwork on her desk and spent the next few minutes screaming at the couple, calling them an “abomination” and threatening that God would “deal” with them, according to the lawsuit.
Seeing how Allen was upsetting the couple, Brookover’s mother, Jill Goff, asked Allen to stem her tirade. Allen responded that it was her right to express her religious views and say what she wanted, as long as she still issued the license. Another clerk in the office chimed in to echo Allen’s view that she had a “religious right” to harass the couple.
Americans United disagrees. In a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for Northern West Virginia on April 17, AU and its allies contend the clerks violated the Constitution by treating a same-sex couple differently from others in the name of religion. The litigation is being directed by AU Senior Litigation Counsel Eric Rothschild and Madison Fellow Kelly Percival with oversight by AU Legal Director Richard B. Katskee.
The case, AU says, raises important issues of equal treatment and dignity.
“Same-sex couples shouldn’t have to run a gauntlet of harassment, religious condemnation and discrimination in order to realize their dreams of marriage,” said AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. “Government officials must apply the law fairly to everyone, regardless of religious beliefs. If these clerks are unable to fulfill their duties, they shouldn’t work in a government office.”
Allen and County Clerk Jean Butcher have not commented in several media reports detailing the case, Brookover v. Gilmer County. Officials from Gilmer County, which is named in the lawsuit along with Allen and Butcher, were expected to file a formal response to the suit as this issue of Church & State went to press.
However, the clerks did comment to the media shortly after the incident occurred last year. While Allen and Angela Moore, another deputy clerk who said she witnessed part of the incident, denied to the Charleston Gazette-Mail that Allen yelled or used the word abomination, they confirmed that Allen voiced her opposition to marriage equality and that she raised religious objections.
“I just told them my opinion,” Allen told the newspaper. “I just felt led to do that. I believe God was standing with me and that’s just my religious belief.”
Allen and the other clerks insisted that nothing they said was an attack on the women.
“We did not attack them,” Allen said. “I felt I talked nicely to them.” However, when the newspaper questioned whether Allen thought her words could be perceived as an attack by someone involved in a same-sex relationship, Allen replied, “Oh, I’m sure.”
According to the lawsuit, Allen concluded her tirade by saying she felt she had to get her feelings off her chest, and, as a parting blow, opined that Abramovich and Brookover wouldn’t be able to find anyone in Gilmer County to marry them because county officials had stopped performing wedding ceremonies in order to avoid marrying same-sex couples.
The lawsuit details how the couple reacted: “Samantha cried throughout this entire encounter. Amanda became so angry that she could feel her fingers shake as she signed the forms for their marriage license application. She felt especially upset that Allen’s tirade had caused her fiancée Samantha to burst into tears on the day that they were getting married – which should have been a joyous occasion.”
Abramovich and Brookover acknowledged they’ve faced prejudice before. They grew up in rural West Virginia. Although their relationship began in high school, they didn’t come out until after they graduated for fear of how their peers might react. They’d faced disapproval from family members. But they didn’t think they’d face condemnation from a government employee.
“To have a complete stranger – someone that doesn’t know me – scream like that, it really cut down to the bone,” Abramovich told the Gazette-Mail.
In a special post for Americans United’s “Wall of Separation” blog, the two went into more detail about how the incident continues to affect them.
“No government employee has the right to belittle anyone who seeks a marriage license, or, for that matter, any other governmental service,” the couple wrote. “We will have to return to the courthouse for other public services in the future and are afraid that the clerk will once again subject us to harassment and religious condemnation. We shouldn’t have to live like that in our hometown.”
The incident didn’t end with the courthouse confrontation. Brookover’s mother later called Butcher to complain about the inappropriate treatment of her daughter and daughter-in-law. But Butcher defended her employees’ actions, saying they had done nothing wrong and that Abramovich and Brookover deserved the harassment they had received. Furthermore, Butcher said future same-sex couples seeking a marriage license in Gilmer County could expect the same treatment – or worse.
Given the county employees’ vow to subject others to ill-treatment, AU concluded that only litigation would solve the problem. As AU’s lawsuit notes, “Although individuals certainly have the right to advocate for their personal religious beliefs as private citizens, the State – and employees acting as officials of the State – may not use religion to intimidate or harass a same-sex couple seeking a marriage license.”
AU notes that the women have experienced a pattern of discrimination at the courthouse. In fact, the February 2016 confrontation was the second time Abramovich and Brookover attempted to apply for a marriage license in Gilmer County. In October 2014, shortly after the governor’s directive that same-sex couples could legally marry in West Virginia, Abramovich and Brookover showed up at the courthouse.
Unbeknownst to the couple, Butcher had reportedly told fellow employees she would not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and would humiliate them instead, and that she’d support her deputy clerks in doing the same, according to the lawsuit.
During their October 2014 visit, Abramovich and Brookover encountered roadblocks from Allen, who clearly did not want to give them a license. Allen treated them with hostility and refused to provide them with a marriage license. Allen claimed the couple needed driver’s licenses with Gilmer County addresses to prove where they lived. In fact, this is not the case.
“Allen’s refusal to issue the marriage license on this basis was pretext: The West Virginia Code does not require that marriage applicants possess an in-county driver’s license – or any driver’s license at all,” the lawsuit notes.
Allen refused to accept the couple’s lease or utility bills as proof of residence. Nor would she accept the verbal testimony of the couple’s landlord, who went to the courthouse to vouch for them. Abramovich and Brookover left without a marriage license and the false impression they’d first need to get driver’s licenses with Gilmer County addresses before they could marry.
It would be more than a year before they’d return to legalize their marriage, having already had a wedding ceremony. And when they returned to the courthouse, they again faced Allen – who treated them like second-class citizens.
The unusual facts of the case led to a spate of media interest. Stories about Abramovich and Brookover appeared in The Washington Post, several LGBTQ sites and West Virginia media. The story event went international when the scrappy London tabloid The Daily Mail picked it up, and The Post story was reprinted in a New Zealand newspaper
Abramovich and Brookover said they realize some people have objections to same-sex couples’ being afforded equal rights. But they believe – and AU agrees – that government employees must uphold the law uniformly.
“We don’t go around flaunting it in front of everyone; we weren’t being like, ‘We’re here, and we’re going to be gay whether you like it or not,’” Brookover told The Washington Post. “We know everybody has their difference of opinion, but it’s not a matter of your opinion as much as it is doing your job.”
Brookover told the newspaper she tries to take solace in the beautiful commitment ceremony they shared.
“It was perfect,” she said. “I don’t want to forget that day being so happy because it’s crowded out by the legal day. But sometimes I can’t help it. It’s hard to drive by the courthouse. It’s hard to just deal with it. I feel like I was robbed of being a human on that day.”
Americans United filed the lawsuit through our Protect Thy Neighbor project, which aims to prevent religion from being used to harm others. Learn more at protectthyneighbor.org.