LGBT Group Backs GOP Lawmaker’s Proposal to Remove Clerks’ Names from Marriage Licenses

Equality Texas and Republican legislators don't often agree, but Senate Bill 911 appears to be a rare instance of consensus.

Travis County newlyweds Sanaz Faili, left, and Marti Bier with their children on the first day same-sex marriage became legal nationwide.

The state’s leading LGBT advocacy group has thrown its support behind a bill that would accommodate county clerks with religious objections to same-sex marriage.

Under Senate Bill 911, by state Senator Joan Huffman, R-Sugar Land, marriage licenses in Texas would no longer specify the names of clerks who issue them, instead listing only the counties where they’re obtained.

Chuck Smith, CEO of Equality Texas, said though he hasn’t spoken with anyone from Huffman’s office about SB 911, his group is supporting the bill as “a simple solution.”

“If there are county clerks who want to make a stink, then this proposed legislation cuts their feet off,” Smith said. “Your name isn’t on it [the license]. Nobody would know. Do your job.”

While rare, it’s not the first time Equality Texas has backed a Republican-authored bill, Smith added. In 2011, the group supported an anti-bullying measure from Representative Diane Patrick, R-Arlington.

Ken Paxton
Attorney General Ken Paxton  Patrick Michels

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 landmark decision that legalized same-sex marriage, Attorney General Ken Paxton encouraged county clerks to defy the decision if they had religious objections.

One clerk who heeded Paxton’s advice, Katie Lang of Hood County, faced a lawsuit for refusing to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple, resulting in a settlement that cost taxpayers $43,000.

Another clerk, Molly Criner of Irion County, testified before the Senate State Affairs Committee during the interim last year, calling on lawmakers to accommodate clerks with religious objections. Huffman is chair of the committee.

Criner said this week she’s unsure whether SB 911 would fully address her concerns.

“I hate to admit it, but I haven’t read that bill,” Criner told the Observer. “I think a lot of clerks might find that a good solution.”

Twenty-one months after Obergefell, Criner said no same-sex couple has sought a marriage license in tiny Irion County, just west of San Angelo, and she’s still unsure whether she’d issue one.

“I think about it a lot,” Criner said. “It would be a really difficult situation.”

Last year, the Kentucky Legislature passed a measure similar to SB 911, after County Clerk Kim Davis was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Chris Hartman, director of Kentucky’s pro-LGBT Fairness Campaign, said the bill represented a compromise and was ultimately backed by not only his group, but also both Davis and Governor Matt Bevin, a conservative Republican.

“It was a rare moment,” Hartman said. “It really removes the potential for political conflict in the county clerk’s office, in the moment you’re getting the marriage license.”

SB 911 is one of at least four proposals in the 85th Legislature dealing with county clerks and marriage licenses. Others would allow clerks to opt out of issuing licenses to same-sex couples altogether, in some cases forcing them to travel to adjacent counties, which experts say would run afoul of the Obergefell decision.

“The delivery of the service, the access to a license, has to be the same for all people, and if that can be accomplished, we are supportive of that,” Smith said. “I would suggest that [SB 911] is the solution to eliminate any of the other proposed legislation related to county clerks or related to marriage licenses that we would oppose.”

Huffman’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. SB 911 has been referred to the Senate State Affairs Committee, but is not yet scheduled for a hearing.

John Wright is a freelance journalist based in Austin. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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Published at 3:57 pm CST
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