The current dispute in Rowan County Kentucky that centers around the county clerk’s refusal to issue marriage licenses in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same-sex marriage across all states illustrates the need for public office holders to respect the roles of the various branches of our national, state, and local governments. In Rowan County Kentucky, no couples (heterosexual or otherwise) have received a marriage license since the Court’s ruling. The office has thus ceased to function properly.
In the simplest terms, it is the role of the legislative branches of our government to make laws, the role of the judicial branches to decide disputes and to interpret laws under the U.S. and state constitutions where necessary, and the role of the executive branches to execute and enforce the law. A county clerk’s office is a part of a county’s executive branch of government. Among other duties, it is tasked with fulfilling various functions under state and local law, such as issuing marriage licenses. Whether a clerk agrees or disagrees with the Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage is irrelevant to his or her duty to issue marriage licenses under the law. The U.S. Supreme Court has found that our U.S. Constitution, the supreme law of our land, guarantees the right to marry a person of one’s choosing. Agree of disagree, the issue has been decided.
To cast the case as a test of how to balance religious expression and protections against discrimination, as the clerk’s attorney is characterized as doing in this Wall Street Journal Article, misses the point. A person is free to believe and express themselves religiously. However, for a public office holder to act or refuse to act solely upon those beliefs frustrates the functionality of government. A court’s decision would mean nothing if a government official,such as a clerk, could pick and choose how to apply it.
The case is on appeal as the clerk appealed a federal district court judge’s decision to require her to issue marriage licenses. The Supreme Court refused to stay the district judge’s order pending appeal and the plaintiffs are seeking to hold the clerk in contempt for her continued refusal to issue the certificates.