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County clerks on front lines of U.S. gay marriage battle

By Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) - For weeks, the lesbian couple courted the Guilford County register of deeds in North Carolina before asking for a marriage license. They went for coffee, shared life stories and, finally, prayed with him in a big circle on the grass outside his office.

Then they followed Jeffrey Thigpen inside, where he denied them and another lesbian couple a license, in line with the state's 2012 constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

It was a wrenching moment for both sides.

"I think deep down in his heart he knew that he should have been giving us a license but he couldn't do it," said Tracey Bridges, a software trainer who had applied with her partner, Cheryl. "This law doesn't just hurt couples like us, it hurts people who have to enforce the law."

"It was very difficult emotionally," said Thigpen, who says he supports gay marriage. "I left work. It was a tough day."

The meeting this week between Thigpen and the lesbian couples came as county clerks have been thrust to the forefront of the U.S. battle over gay marriage after two local officials from New Mexico and Pennsylvania this summer began unilaterally issuing wedding licenses to same-sex couples.

Taking advantage of a lack of legal clarity over gay marriage in New Mexico, a county clerk there began issuing same-sex marriage licenses that have so far been allowed to stand. In Pennsylvania, a county register of wills handed out the licenses to gay and lesbian couples despite a state law banning same-sex marriage, before a judge ordered him to stop.

Some proponents of gay marriage have celebrated those high profile moves, saying they add momentum to the fight to allow same-sex nuptials in places outside the 13 U.S. states that allow it. Opponents see them as trying to make an end-run around the law.

Lynn Ellins, the county clerk in southern New Mexico's Doña Ana County who began issuing licenses to gay and lesbian couples in August, said he believes clerks in states without laws allowing gay marriage will soon do the same thing.

"I wouldn't be surprised if other clerks bit the bullet," Ellins said in a telephone interview. "I can't be the only one out there thinking the way I'm thinking."

The Democrat makes that prediction even though he was sued by several Republican state lawmakers seeking to roll back his action, and was forced to raise more than $31,000 in private donations to defend against the lawsuit.

Since Ellins began issuing the licenses, officials in seven other New Mexico counties have begun doing the same thing. Those include the state's most populous county of Bernalillo, which started issuing licenses after a district judge found denying gay couples the right to marry violated the state constitution.

Gay marriage opponents are paying keen attention to the actions of county clerks.

"What happened both in New Mexico and Pennsylvania was utter lawlessness. You had two county clerks who felt they were above or outside the law," said Chris Plante, spokesman for the National Organization for Marriage.

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Plante said he was concerned that New Mexico's Republican governor did not go to court to seek to block Ellins from issuing licenses. In Pennsylvania, the governor's administration won a court order to stop the Montgomery County register of wills from doing so.

"What's going to convince another county clerk in another state to either uphold the law or violate the law is going to be their own perception of what happens," Plante said.

A 1996 Pennsylvania law defines marriage as between a man and a woman. However, New Mexico is one of two states - New Jersey is the other - that do not explicitly ban gay marriage and do not allow it statewide.

County clerks in New Mexico have asked the state Supreme Court to decide whether same sex marriage should be allowed across the state. A hearing is scheduled for next month.

Twenty-nine states have constitutional amendments defining marriage as between a man and a woman while six others including Illinois, Indiana and Hawaii have laws that do so, said Jack Tweedie, director of the children and families program for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

New Jersey's gender-neutral laws on marriage appear to provide wiggle room for action by clerks, he said, but gay rights groups are working to win the legal right to same-sex marriage there.

Public support for gay marriage has been growing, with a July Gallup poll showing 52 percent of Americans would like to see it legalized throughout the country.

That support is weakest in the South, where Cheryl and Tracey Bridges live. They asked Thigpen for a marriage license this week in a North Carolina action organized by grassroots group Campaign for Southern Equality.

The group is seeking to find a single official in the South who will issue a same-sex marriage license in defiance of state laws or constitutions.

Since 2011, the gay rights organization has sent more 80 gay and lesbian couples to seek marriage licenses in the South or have their out-of-state same-sex marriage recognized in their home states, organizers said. All have been denied.

The campaign also has sent more than 600 letters urging local officials across the South to grant same-sex couples wedding licenses, citing the actions of their counterparts in New Mexico and Pennsylvania, said Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, the group's executive director.

For the Bridges, who have been together 12 years and legally took the same last name but are not married, the denial in North Carolina followed weeks of getting to know Thigpen, the clerk.

They went for coffee and told Thigpen about Cheryl's battle with breast cancer, and their concern about being able to make decisions for each other at a hospital.

"His staff says it's hard on Jeff," Cheryl Bridges, a Quaker minister, said last week.

In joining with the two lesbian couples and dozens of their supporters for prayer outside his offices on Monday, Thigpen was seeking reconciliation, he later said in a phone interview.

"I did pray for them and in that prayer I prayed for people on every side of this issue, that we all can move through this eventually and focus on issues that unite us rather than divide us," Thigpen said.

(Additional reporting by Dave Warner in Philadelphia and Zelie Pollon in Santa Fe; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Doina Chiacu)

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