While some Texas county clerks are still refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, one openly gay official in conservative Lamar County says he was honored to do so.
Russ Towers was appointed Lamar County clerk on April 1 after his predecessor retired. He previously served as the county’s appointed elections administrator for seven years. Towers, 39, is believed to be the only openly gay county clerk in the state and the first out official in Lamar County, 100 miles northeast of Dallas.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges on June 26, Towers said he’s issued four marriage licenses to same-sex couples, including three on the first day.
“I had done a lot of consulting with other larger counties and my county attorney as well, and I decided to go ahead and pull the trigger, do the right thing,” Towers told the Observer.
“For me, it was very surreal, because it was something that I never thought that I would see in my lifetime, but to be on the other side of the counter, to be the one issuing, made it especially special for me. It was probably one of the proudest moments and days that I’ve ever had professionally.”
Towers, a Republican, criticized his counterparts in other counties who are resisting the ruling, as well as Attorney General Ken Paxton for encouraging them to do so.
“It makes me sad,” he said. “We’re all clerks, and we all take the same oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, the laws of the United States and of the state, and that doesn’t apply to do just some people or the lifestyles with which you agree.”
In the wake of the high court’s ruling, Paxton issued an opinion suggesting that county clerks could refuse to issue licenses to same-sex couples, although they might be sued. Paxton also said attorneys likely would be willing to represent those clerks free of charge.
“What they didn’t tell those clerks is that your bond may not cover you, and can also be personally liable for official oppression,” Towers said.
Towers said one of three employees who issue marriage licenses in his office requested that she not be required to do so for same-sex couples due to religious objections. However, he said if she’s the only one available, she’ll be required to.
“The customer is the first priority, and no one’s right is going to be denied because she’s the only one in the room,” he said.
Towers, a Paris native whose father was a Major League Baseball player, said he came out when he moved to Dallas in 1997, but returned to Lamar County 10 years later to be near family. He said his sexual orientation wasn’t an issue when he was appointed elections administrator or clerk by the Lamar County Commissioners Court.
“I’m pretty sure there have been whispers behind my back, but one thing life has given me is very thick skin, and I’m not offended or my feelings don’t get hurt very easily,” he said.
Towers faces re-election in 2016 but isn’t overly concerned about a Republican primary challenger using his sexual orientation against him.
“It’s a small worry, but I’m not going to put too much worry into it, because I’m not about to go changing who I am or altering who I am or try to hide who I am in order to just win an election,” he said.
“I am out, and nothing will ever change that. I suppose that could make some people uncomfortable, but I think most people who are active voters can recognize the changes that I made as an elections administrator to improve their voting experience, and maybe that will be enough to sway them to trust me in the job that I do as county clerk.”