Texas County Clerks Prepare for Same-Sex Marriages
Tarrant County won’t issue licenses even if the stay is lifted; Bexar County will be open around the clock.
Same-sex couples in Fort Worth may have to travel to Dallas to obtain marriage licenses if a federal judge lifts his stay of a ruling striking down the state’s same-sex marriage bans.
Meanwhile, the Bexar County clerk said he’s prepared to keep his office open 24 hours a day to accommodate same-sex couples seeking marriage licenses, including those from surrounding counties where clerks may decline to issue them.
Last week, plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging Texas’ marriage bans asked U.S. District Judge Orlando L. Garcia to lift his stay of a February decision striking down the bans. If Garcia lifts the stay, it could create a window for same-sex marriages to occur in Texas before Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott can seek a new stay from the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is set to hear oral arguments in the case on Jan. 9.
Jeff Nicholson, chief deputy for Tarrant County Clerk Mary Louise Garcia, a Republican, said Tuesday he consulted with the DA’s office about the issue after receiving an inquiry from a citizen.
“They advised us very explicitly that the lifting of the stay by Garcia in San Antonio, which is a different district than the one we’re in, doesn’t have any effect on us,” Nicholson told the Observer. “I think the DA’s position is here, until this is very clearly decided, that Texas law is Texas law, and we’re going to sit tight.”
Ken Upton, Dallas-based senior counsel at the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, said clerks in other states, including Kansas and Missouri, have taken similar positions.
“I don’t think there is anything keeping them from issuing the licenses once the stay is lifted, but an argument could be made that they aren’t required to do so until it [the outcome of the case] becomes final,” Upton said.
Fortunately, same-sex couples from Fort Worth will be able to obtain licenses in Dallas, where Democratic clerk John Warren said he’s prepared to issue them.
“You take an oath to uphold the law, and if the law changes, you’ve got to do it,” Warren said. “If the law says I can’t, then I won’t. If the law says I can, then I will.”
Democratic Republican Bexar County Clerk Gerhard C. “Gerry” Rickhoff said in addition to keeping his office open ’round-the-clock, he’s considering setting up tables in Main Plaza to accommodate same-sex couples. Rickhoff said he’s also lined up district judges to waive a 72-hour waiting period before ceremonies can occur, as well as officiants to conduct them.
“There’s a pent-up demand to stop these civil rights violations that are pretty evident,” Rickhoff said. “I would imagine they’ll be driving into San Antonio in droves, and that’s what we’re prepared for. Nobody will be turned away. We’ll work until there’s nobody left.”
Democratic Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said her office will also be ready to extend its hours if Garcia lifts the stay.
DeBeauvoir said she’s also prepared to “flip the switch” on changes to a database that would replace “bride” and “groom” with “Person 1” and “Person 2.”
Call center employees have undergone training to handle inquiries from same-sex couples, and DeBeauvoir has drafted press releases and social media announcements to get the word out.
“I’m hoping for this day,” DeBeauvoir said. “I’m very much looking forward to marriage equality.”
Update: Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, a Republican, said he would defer to Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office about whether he should issue licenses pending an appeal of Garcia’s decision to lift the stay.
“I’ll be looking to him for guidance,” said Stanart. “If they’re going to immediately appeal and they feel like there’s going to be an immediate stay, I would wait to find out what’s going to happen there.”
Stanart said he personally opposes same-sex marriage but will issue licenses if Texas’ marriage bans are ultimately overturned.
“My duty is to the law, not necessarily to provide a loophole,” Stanart said.