When high-school sweethearts Amanda Abramovich and Samantha Brookover applied for a marriage license on Feb. 3, 2016, in Glenville, W.Va., they expected it to be one of the happiest days of their lives. Instead, they were on the receiving end of verbal abuse from a Gilmer County clerk who told the couple that God would “deal” with them and that they were an “abomination.”
“When we went to get our marriage license, this was the last thing we expected,” Abramovich and Brookover said. “We were presented with two options: accept this treatment and leave the possibility that other couples would have to endure this as well, or speak up for ourselves and hopefully stop it from continuing.”
That’s why on April 17, 2017, Americans United and its allies—LGBTQ-rights organization Fairness West Virginia and the law firm Mayer Brown—filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Abramovich and Brookover against Gilmer County.
The lawsuit, Brookover v. Gilmer County, alleged that Deputy Clerk Debbie Allen and others in the Gilmer County Clerk’s Office harassed the couple and treated them with disfavor, largely because of the clerks’ religious beliefs. These actions, Americans United asserted, violated the Constitution.
Although certain facts about the case remain in dispute – Allen, for example, denies that she called the couple an “abomination” – it’s clear that Abramovich and Brookover were treated with disdain. Shortly after the incident, Allen admitted to the Charleston Gazette-Mail that she told the couple that God would judge them for their marriage.
“I just told them my opinion,” Allen told the newspaper. She even said she felt that “God was standing with me” while she harassed the couple.
Far from stopping Allen from verbally harassing Abramovich and Brookover, another clerk allegedly came to her defense to insist that Allen had a “religious right” to lecture the couple.
AU and Fairness West Virginia argued otherwise, and now they’ve won justice for the couple. On Aug. 30, AU announced a settlement of the case. The settlement required Gilmer County to apologize to Abramovich and Brookover and pay damages for the harms the couple suffered. It also required Gilmer County to issue a public statement making it clear that this won’t happen again.
“It is the policy of Gilmer County and the Gilmer County Clerk’s Office that all people seeking services and doing business with the County will be treated courteously and with respect regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Gilmer County’s statement read. “The County Commission and Clerk will take steps to ensure that their employees comply with this policy.”
As a part of the settlement, the county also agreed to require its employees to undergo sensitivity training conducted by Fairness West Virginia to prevent future anti-LGBTQ incidents.
Both women hailed the settlement, saying they did not want any other same-sex couples to experience what they did.
“Consenting adults should never be made to feel embarrassed or ashamed when marrying the person they love,” Abramovich and Brookover said in a statement released by AU. “It will be a comfort to know that this behavior will no longer be allowed in the Gilmer County Courthouse.”
More than six months before the original incident, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges legalized marriage equality nationwide. But discrimination, prejudice and hate in other forms continued to significantly impact the LGBTQ community.
Abramovich and Brookover had fought that tide in the Mountain State before. In 2014, before the high court ruled, a lower federal appeals court had issued a ruling extending marriage equality to several states, among them West Virginia. Despite a directive from West Virginia’s governor requiring compliance with the ruling, the couple encountered roadblocks the first time they applied for a marriage license in Gilmer County.
Prejudice was not new to Abramovich and Brookover, who have encountered their fair share of homophobia over the years. They even waited to come out due to fear of how people might react. (See “Who’s The ‘Abomination’?” June 2017 Church & State.)
When the couple visited the courthouse in 2014, Allen was reportedly hostile and demanded that the two show driver’s licenses to confirm their residential address – something that is not required under state law. She refused to accept other official documents that confirmed their address.
AU Madison Fellow Kelly Percival, who litigated the case alongside AU Senior Litigation Counsel Eric Rothschild, said she hopes that this settlement helps other members of the LGBTQ community feel safe when speaking out against harassment.
“Amanda and Samantha were so brave to bring this lawsuit. We hope that their bravery inspires other same-sex couples to speak out if they experience harassment,” Percival told Church & State. “We also hope that the results of the case will send a message across the country that this kind of abuse should never occur. And if it does, AU and our allies will fight it.”
Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, echoed this sentiment and said that the settlement sends a positive message people need to hear given the ongoing efforts to roll back LGBTQ rights.
“The tenets of fairness and equality benefit everyone. This favorable settlement not only rights a wrong but also creates a path forward that will allow the County Clerk’s Office to rise to fairness through a training program designed to eliminate prejudice and discrimination,” Schneider said. “In light of the current national news cycle, breaking down these walls is critical to ensuring that love trumps hate and that all West Virginians are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.”
Percival noted that Brookover v. Gilmer County was a “huge win” for AU and its clients, adding that the case was unique because it was the first legal challenge brought on behalf of a same-sex couple who ultimately received their marriage license. A handful of clerks and government officials around the country – Rowan County, Ky.’s Kim Davis is the most prominent – have flat-out refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but there hasn’t been a case brought on behalf of a couple who had to suffer through a clerk’s harassment while their application was being processed.
AU wanted to make it clear that this type of behavior is not acceptable.
“We hope this sends a message that, even if a person receives the services he or she is seeking from a public official, it’s not OK for that official to verbally abuse a person based on the official’s religious beliefs,” Percival said.
Teaming up with “great ally” Fairness West Virginia played an important role in the successful settlement, Percival noted, adding that AU will be working with the organization to conduct the workplace sensitivity training for the employees of the Gilmer County Clerk’s Office and the County Commission as a part of the settlement terms.
AU publicized news of the settlement, and it reached newspapers and news sites nationwide and internationally. Stories ran in The Washington Post, the Associated Press, the Charleston Gazette-Mail and several LGBTQ media outlets. The story even reached Reddit, an interactive news-oriented social media network.
Americans United hopes that this case will serve as a deterrent to prevent future mistreatment of members of the LGBTQ community.
“This should never have happened to us,” Abramovich and Brookover wrote earlier this year in a post for Americans United’s “Wall of Separation” blog. “We’re determined to make certain it never happens to anyone else.”
Americans United Legal Director Richard B. Katskee said he’s glad Gilmer County is acknowledging that its employees’ actions were unacceptable and are taking corrective steps for the future.
“We wish that Amanda and Samantha hadn’t suffered mistreatment and harassment on their wedding day, and we hope that they can take comfort in knowing that their brave actions to right this wrong should prevent future couples from experiencing what they went through,” Katskee said.
Ultimately, in this case, AU and allies sent a message that the country should not be moving backward on equality and dignified treatment of the LGBTQ community.
“Same-sex couples shouldn’t have to run a gauntlet of harassment, religious condemnation and discrimination in order to realize their dreams of marriage,” AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said. “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.”
Through AU’s Protect Thy Neighbor project, which emphasizes that religion does not give people the right to discriminate against and harm others, AU will continue to monitor and fight religion-based discrimination.