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Some Texas Counties Aren't Issuing Same-Sex Marriage Licenses; Others Are Waiting

Andrea Parrish-Geyer
Some Texas counties still aren't issuing marriage licenses. Some are waiting for more guidance while others cite religious beliefs for not issuing certificates.

The Supreme Court may have legalized same-sex marriage on Friday, but for some gay and lesbian couples in Texas, getting a marriage license isn’t so simple.

Some Texas county clerks say they have a variety of reasons for not issuing licenses -- from religious reasons to issues with the wording on license applications. 

Meanwhile, the Texas attorney general says it’s OK for county clerks to deny licenses.

Religious reasons

Just hours after Friday's Supreme Court ruling, Dallas and Tarrant counties began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Denton and Collin counties waited until Monday to issue them. The Denton County clerk, Juli Luke, said doing so contradicts her personal beliefs that marriage is between a man and a woman.

As of Tuesday morning, Hood County still wasn’t issuing licenses. Clerk Katie Lang cited her religious liberty and belief in traditional marriage.

"I will be not be issuing same sex marriage licenses due to my religious convictions," Lang said on the county's website.

On Wednesday, Lang announced Hood County will issue same-sex marriage licenses. Lang said the clerk's office will have staff available to issue the licenses "as soon as the appropriate forms have been printed and supplied." 

"The religious doctrines to which I adhere compel me to personally refrain from issuing same-sex marriage licenses," Lang said in a statement on Wednesday.

In East Texas, in San Jacinto County, clerk Dawn Wright said she won’t issue same-sex licenses “for religious reasons and as a matter of conscience.” She checked with her six deputy clerks and five of them held similar beliefs. One deputy doesn’t have problems with same-sex marriage, so that person will be responsible for issuing licenses, Wright says.

The ruling sent Wright “into a tailspin,” she said in a statement.

She says she is grateful that “we live in a state where religious freedom can extend beyond the home and church into our everyday life.” 

'Rights to religious liberty'

That’s within her First Amendment right, say religious liberty advocates like Jeremy Dys with the Plano-based Liberty Institute.

“Whatever happened on this past Friday, whatever the decision stood for, we know one thing absolutely clearly, and that is the First Amendment was not overturned and that means the First Amendment is still the law of the land and it is still part of our constitution,” Dys said. “And because of that, people in the country still have their full rights to religious liberty here.”

Dys says clerks and other employees shouldn’t be forced to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples if it violates their faith. But some are wondering about the repercussions.

“I think there’s a general concern whether it’s a public employee or a private employee that is saying, 'hey, what’s going to happen to me and my employment if I disagree with the state or I disagree with my employer on the definition of marriage,'” Dys said.

Where Texas counties stand

As of Tuesday morning, 112 of Texas' 254 counties were saying they were issuing same-sex licenses, according to a tally by Equality Texas, which advocates for ending discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Texas Attorney General: It's OK to deny same-sex licenses

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said county officials can deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. He released a statement Sunday saying employees who do so could face litigation or a fine, but added there are plenty of lawyers ready to defend them. Dys said that’s exactly what his group plans to do.

In his statement, Paxton said: “Texas must speak with one voice against this lawlessness, and act on multiple levels to further protect religious liberties for all Texans, but most immediately do anything we can to help our County Clerks and public officials who now are forced with defending their religious beliefs against the Court’s ruling.”

Application and technology issues

In North Texas on Monday, you also couldn’t get a same-sex marriage license in Kaufman County. The clerk’s office said it was waiting on further instructions from the district attorney.

Other counties are waiting on software vendors to update marriage license applications.

“On the application itself, originally it said woman and man for the applicant, and we can’t alter their forms," said Deirdre Coslow in the Johnson County clerk’s office. “We’re required to use the one by the state.”

Coslow said her office doesn’t plan to turn anyone away.

“They’re gonna change it to applicant 1 and applicant 2 and they’ve done that at the state level, and we’ve forwarded that to our software provider,” Coslow said. “But they just haven’t got it into the system yet.”

Asking Justice Department for help

Not everyone is happy with Paxton’s statement or the counties that are not issuing licenses.

State Senator Rodney Ellis has written to the Department of Justice asking it to monitor how Texas counties are responding to the Supreme Court ruling. The Houston Democrat has also asked the Justice Department to intervene if Texas officials aren’t following the law.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.