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In Texas, the federal same-sex marriage ruling leads to a dilemma

When she opened her office Tuesday, Kimble County Clerk Haydee Torres faced a dilemma: How should she respond to the Supreme Court's ruling establishing the right to same-sex marriage?

“I’ve been praying a lot about it for myself, just asking God to reveal to me,” said Torres, 59. “You weigh it. Are you going to be afraid of getting sued, or are you more fearful of God?”

Some officials across the country responsible for issuing marriage licenses and officiating weddings are wrestling with the same dilemma.

Clerks in Arkansas and Mississippi resigned Tuesday rather than be forced to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

In Louisiana — where same-sex marriage licenses are now being issued after delays Friday — the ACLU Foundation of Louisiana and other gay rights advocates filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging an executive order by Gov. Bobby Jindal this year that gives state employees the right to deny same-sex couples marriage licenses.

In Mississippi, where Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has asked a federal appeals court to uphold the state’s 2004 ban on same-sex marriage, the office of Atty. Gen. Jim Hood, a Democrat, asked Tuesday to withdraw from representing the governor and, separately, urged the court to strike down the ban.

In Texas, some clerks initially delayed marrying same-sex couples on procedural grounds, insisting that their forms had not been updated.

Then over the weekend, the state issued new forms that replaced “male” and “female” with “applicant 1 and 2.”

Gay rights supporters have begun testing officials to see whether they are willing to follow the high court’s ruling.

Jason White, 36, and fiance Jonathan Means, 28, both of Austin, drove about 100 miles northwest to Means’ native San Saba County to get a marriage license Tuesday after hearing the clerk had refused.

“We thought that was foolish and instead of going to Austin we would go to his hometown,” said White, a former Marine staff sergeant who served for a decade, including six tours of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, earning a Bronze Star. He is now owner of the Brass House restaurant in Austin.

When the couple arrived at the clerk’s office, White said they were pleasantly surprised. “They were expecting us and had the paperwork ready to go,” White said, adding that the clerks “actually congratulated us on the way out.”

San Saba County Atty. Randall Robinson said local officials had seen messages from Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton supporting religious objections to the law, but did not plan to oppose same-sex marriage licensing.

While clerks in the state’s 15 most populous counties were issuing same-sex marriage licenses, a few still resisted. They cited religious beliefs and the nonbinding legal opinion issued over the weekend by Paxton and seconded by a state directive from Abbott.

“County clerks and their employees retain religious freedoms that may allow accommodation of their religious objections to issuing same-sex marriage licenses,” Paxton wrote, but warned that they may be sued.

In Kimble County, Torres waited Tuesday, unsure what she would do if a same-sex couple requested a license.

“I haven’t had anybody come in yet. I have an employee who is willing, and one who is not,” said Torres, a Republican.

She’s Baptist, and when it comes to same-sex marriage, “I do have a problem with the religious aspect of it, because I know what the Bible says. But we’re going to do what our attorney advises.”

For Torres, the decision boiled down to a conflict between church and state, between her personal beliefs and her oath of office. “It puts you in a difficult position,” she said. “As my husband said, your oath said you have to do your job. So you’re in a Catch-22.”

She went online to see what other clerks were doing. They had been issuing licenses to same-sex couples in all the big cities. But some clerks in more rural, Baptist areas refused or delayed.

Chuck Smith, executive director of the Austin-based gay advocacy group Equality Texas, said they were working to educate county officials about the ruling rather than rushing to sue them.

“We would be hopeful that once there’s a clear illumination of what the consequences would be, that clerks would understand their obligations,” Smith said.

In the Panhandle, Lipscomb County Clerk Kim Blau said she had not decided Tuesday what she would do about same-sex marriage licenses.

“I'm going to cross that bridge when there's a couple that's at my counter wanting to have one,” said Blau, a Republican.

In Hood County, southwest of Fort Worth, Republican County Clerk Katie Lang posted a statement online saying she refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses, “due to my religious convictions.”

In Bell County, north of Austin, Republican County Clerk Shelley Coston said she would accommodate staff with religious objections, but faced with potential lawsuits, would not refuse to license same-sex couples.

“The costs of defending such a lawsuit and the potential for damages would be substantial,” she said. “I cannot do that to our taxpayers.”

Twitter: @mollyhf


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