Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Fairness West Virginia and the law firm Mayer Brown LLP today announced the settlement of a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of a West Virginia same-sex couple who was harassed by a Gilmer County clerk who cited religious objections to marriage equality.
When high-school sweethearts Amanda Abramovich and Samantha Brookover asked for a marriage license on Feb. 3, 2016, they were subjected to a rant by Gilmer County Deputy Clerk Debbie Allen, who called the women an “abomination” to God and said their marriage shouldn’t be legal.
On April 17, 2017, Americans United, Fairness West Virginia and Mayer Brown filed a lawsuit on behalf of the couple in the U.S. District Court for Northern West Virginia. The lawsuit, Brookover v. Gilmer County, named Allen, County Clerk Jean Butcher and Gilmer County as defendants. The complaint alleged that the county and the named officials violated the U.S. Constitution by treating same-sex couples differently from others in the name of religion.
As part of the settlement, Gilmer County agreed to apologize to Abramovich and Brookover and issue a public statement regarding the wrongdoing by the County Clerk’s office. They also promised to take steps to ensure that county officials and employees do not discriminate against anyone in the future, regardless of religious beliefs about sexual orientation or gender identity. Finally, the county agreed to pay damages in recognition of the harms Abramovich and Brookover suffered. (Gilmer County’s statement is available here.)
“We’re glad Gilmer County recognizes that the clerk’s actions toward Amanda and Samantha were wrong, and that county officials are taking steps to ensure that all who do business with Gilmer County are treated equally and with respect,” said Richard B. Katskee, legal director of Americans United. “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.”
“When we went to get our marriage license, this was the last thing we expected,” said Abramovich and Brookover. “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.
“Consenting adults should never be made to feel embarrassed or ashamed when marrying the person they love,” the women said. “It will be a comfort to know that this behavior will no longer be allowed in the Gilmer County Courthouse.”
“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,” said Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia. “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.”
“Religious freedom is a fundamental American value, and finding someone to love and to marry is a fundamental part of the American dream for many. One should not come at the expense of the other,” Katskee added. “Religious freedom gives us all the right to believe, or not, as we see fit, but it does not give anyone the right to harm others.”
Americans United filed the lawsuit as part of its Protect Thy Neighbor project, which seeks to stop religion-based discrimination against LGBTQ people and others. The complaint was authored by Katskee, Senior Litigation Counsel Eric Rothschild and Legal Fellow Kelly M. Percival; Fairness West Virginia Cooperating Counsel Robert M. Bastress Jr.; and Brian D. Netter and Manuel J. Velez from Mayer Brown.
Photo of Samantha Brookover (left) and Amanda Abramovich.