Apr 17, 2017

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Fairness West Virginia and the law firm of Mayer Brown today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a West Virginia same-sex couple that was harassed and disparaged by a county clerk who cited religious objections to issuing the women a marriage license.

High-school sweethearts Amanda Abramovich and Samantha Brookover visited the Gilmer County Clerk’s Office on Feb. 3, 2016, to obtain a marriage license. Abramovich and Brookover were accompanied by family members to celebrate the happy occasion.

But joy turned to bewilderment, distress and anger when Deputy Clerk Debbie Allen insulted and ranted at the couple, calling the women an “abomination” to God, slamming down paperwork and indicating God would “deal” with them. Allen cited her Christian beliefs when she told the women their intent to marry was wrong and shouldn’t be legal. Allen received support from another clerk.

“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 the Rev. Barry Lynn, Americans United’s executive director. “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.”

“West Virginia is a place that’s known for its hospitality and its adherence to the Golden Rule, to treat others as you’d like to be treated. The behavior of the Gilmer County clerks violates those values by perpetuating fear and intimidation in our community,” said Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, the statewide LGBT advocacy organization that is serving as co-counsel on the case. “LGBT couples in Gilmer County, and across West Virginia, should be free to be themselves when encountering government officials.”

Allen and the other clerk insisted that Allen had a “religious right” to harass same-sex couples. Allen also told the couple that Gilmer County officials had stopped performing all marriages when same-sex couples gained marriage equality and that no one in the county would marry them.

When Brookover’s mother later called County Clerk Jean Butcher to complain about the harassment, Butcher said she was aware of the incident, that her staff had done nothing wrong and that Abramovich and Brookover deserved the treatment they had received. Butcher also indicated other same-sex couples could expect the same treatment from the Gilmer County Clerk’s Office.

In a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for Northern West Virginia, Americans United and its allies argue that Allen and Butcher violated the Constitution by treating same-sex couples differently than others in the name of religion.

“The county clerks had no idea who we were before they started screaming at us,” Abramovich and Brookover said. “No background details, no idea we’ve been together since high school and certainly no idea how much we love each other.

“This year when we realized our anniversary was approaching, we got knots in our stomachs,” they added. “This is the feeling we will have every year rather than the happiness of finally being legally married.”

As residents of Gilmer County, Abramovich and Brookover fear they’ll continue to face harassment and ill treatment when they interact with the county office to pay their taxes, register to vote or complete other necessary tasks.

Americans United filed the lawsuit, Brookover v. Gilmer County, as part of its Protect Thy Neighbor project, which seeks to stop religion-based discrimination against LGBT people and others. The complaint was authored by AU Legal Director Richard B. 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 available of Samantha Brookover (left) and Amanda Abramovich.