Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A Day at the Courthouse

Just another "Texan Tall Tale"....

“They look so young,” the gray-haired woman said wistfully to her spouse as she looked toward the counter on the opposite side of the small courthouse lobby.  He smiled and nodded in agreement.

She had spied the youthful couple when they entered the building, holding hands and smiling as they strode confidently across the linoleum floor, across to the window marked, “County Clerk—Marriage Licenses.”  Seeing them made her think of a day long ago when she and her beau had taken that same walk.

The woman began to create a story in her mind about the youngsters as she saw them being greeted by the clerk.  She imagined the young man to be named Mark, like her grandson.  In fact, he looked a bit like him.

The girl?  She looked like a “Kelli” or “Brandi,” or some other name that could end with either “i” or “y.”  They’d probably met at college, through mutual friends, no doubt.  They looked comfortable with one another, she thought, in a way that said they were more than just infatuated.  They may have even been through some difficulty or sadness in their short time together, something that had made them stronger as a couple.

Yes, it was right that they should be married, she thought.  They’re in love.

The clerk’s terse tone, tinged with condescension, snapped her from her daydream.  “I asked, are you both Christian?” the woman inquired in voice loud enough to be heard across the lobby, apparently repeating something heard but not quite believed the first time by “Mark and Kelli.”

“No,” said Mark, both baffled by the question and annoyed that it was asked.  “Not that it’s any of your business, but I’m Jewish.”

“Well, then, you’ll have to wait until Maria comes back from her lunch break so she can issue your license,” the clerk replied, looking down at the stack of papers she had collected to shuffle so she could avoid meeting the stunned couple’s widening eyes.  “I have a sincerely-held religious belief that prevents me from doing it myself.”

“But it’s your job!” Kelli emphatically responded, her voice rising and tears of indignation welling in her eyes.  “And it’s the law!  How can you ignore the law?!?”

Across the lobby, the gray-haired woman tugged her husband’s sleeve.  “Are you hearing this?” she whispered. She cocked her head toward the County Clerk’s window.  It seemed the entire lobby was looking that way, too.

“Miss, you’ll have to lower your voice.  If you make a scene, you’ll be asked to leave,” the clerk said, her own voice growing louder.

Mark grasped the girl’s hand tightly, as if to get her attention.  He focused his gaze squarely on the clerk.  With a calm, but firm tone, he asked:  “What do you mean ‘sincerely-held religious belief?’  How does that ‘prevent’ you from following the law?’

“I just don’t believe you two should be getting married,” she replied.  “And the Bible supports that.  See, right here,” she began, as she whipped around to snatch the New International Version sitting like a paperweight atop a stack of forms on her county-issued standard office desk.  With a quick combination of page-flips and thumb-licks, she found the damning scripture she needed.

“Yep, right here.  Second Corinthians, Chapter Six, Verse Fourteen: ‘Do not be yoked together with unbelievers.  For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?’”  With a thud, she closed her Bible and any further conversation about the matter.

“Maria will be back in a few minutes," she said, dismissively.  "Wait over there and she can help you when she gets back—if she wants to.”

Just then, as if on cue, Maria appeared behind the counter, having returned early from lunch.  As she placed her purse in the large file drawer of her desk, she sensed the tension at the window.

“Is there something I can do to help?” she asked cheerfully, approaching the window.  She noticed her co-worker’s rigid stance, the flush that had appeared on the young woman's skin, rising from her neck to her face.  Were those tears in her eyes?

“Maybe you can help them,” her co-worker said, turning away and hastily retreating to a file room.

“We just want to get a marriage license,” Mark said.  “This shouldn’t be so hard.”

“Well, no, of course not!”  Maria looked over the application form.  “Everything seems to be in order so far as I can see.”

From across the lobby, the gray-haired woman continued to watch the young couple.  Finally, she thought, common sense will prevail.

“Thank you,” Kelli and Mark firmly said in unison, their impatience thinly disguised.

“Just one more question, though—have either of you been married before?” Maria inquired, her happy voice echoing off the shiny linoleum floors for all to hear.

Kelli’s anger burst through.  “Yes, I have!  So what?  What business is that of yours?”

“Well,” Maria began, her voice still courteous and sweet—perhaps too sweet.  “That’s going to be a problem.  You see, I have a sincere religious belief that marriage is eternal.  It says so in the Scripture, right there in Matthew, that if you two get married, you would be committing adultery.  I can’t be a party to that, I’m sorry.”

Kelli burst into tears.  Mark exploded into a fit of rage.  “What the hell are you talking about?!?  Your job is to uphold the Constitution!  There is nothing illegal about us being married!” he shouted for all to hear.

“Sir, calm down or we will have to call a deputy down and arrest you!”  Maria’s voice had lost its sweetness by now. 

“I’m telling you that I do not have to provide you with a marriage license if it violates my sincerely-held religious beliefs, no matter what the Constitution says.  You’ll need to wait until one of my co-workers can help you.  Now, sit over there,” she commanded, waving them off to the seating area at the corner of the counter.

The woman across the lobby lurched forward, instinctive in her desire to intervene on behalf of the young couple.  He looked so much like her grandson.  The gentle squeeze of her husband’s hand, the slightest tug on her arm told her, No…this is not our business.

Stunned, Mark and Kelli turned away from the window.  Only then did they realize that every eye in the lobby was trained on them.  A scene had been made.

As they shuffled to the chairs in the waiting area, the gray-haired woman studied their faces.  What was that look?  Was it anger? Frustration? Embarrassment?

No, she soon realized.  That look was the look of shame.


The oath of office for County Clerks elected in Texas reads, “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the duties of (the office) and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this State, so help me God.”

Yesterday, April 11, 2017, nearly two years after the United States Supreme Court issued the Obergefell decision, the Texas Senate preliminarily approved SB 522 on a 21-10 vote, mostly along party lines (Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, voted in favor of the bill).  This bill would allow clerks to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples and assign those duties elsewhere if doing so would contradict a “sincerely held religious belief.”

I think this bill has a snowball’s chance in Hell once it gets to the House.  Nevertheless….

The San Antonio Express-News quotes Senator Brian Bridwell, the Granbury Republican who authored the measure as saying, “Right now, there is not an alternate mechanism for a clerk who is not willing to issue a license because of their sincerely held beliefs.”

To that I say, hogwash.  There is an alternate mechanism:  Get another job if you refuse to do the one you have sworn to do.