While one county clerk is capturing national media attention for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, officials in most of the nation’s 3,100 other counties are quietly following the law with little fanfare, says one Tennessee county clerk.
Evonne Hoback is clerk of Tennessee’s McMinn County, a rural county that lies between Knoxville and Chattanooga in the southeast portion of the state.
While the TV-camera lights are blazing in the office of Kim Davis – the Rowan County, Kentucky, clerk who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses for religious reasons – things are quieter for Hoback and her staff, who work in the county courthouse in Athens, Tennessee, a city of about 13,000.
“Within 30 minutes of the Supreme Court ruling, we had a phone call from someone in the LGBT community asking what we were going to do about same-sex marriage licenses,” Habock said. “I assured them that all systems were go as soon as another agency was ready to roll with the computer system.”
The hold up?
The state needed to change labels on the standardized electronic form to accommodate same-sex couples – for example, using “surname” instead of “maiden name.” The state and McMinn County were ready to take applications the same day as the court ruling on June 26, Hoback said.
“We just did it without pomp and circumstance,” she said. “It’s the law, and our office takes the law very seriously.”
Hoback said her impression is that most county clerks – whether they personally agree with the court decision or not – are like her.
“We are here to serve people. We are here to help people. This is a public-service office.”
In Kentucky, Rowan County Clerk Davis is in the minority but not alone in her public refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Two other Kentucky county clerks have said they will not issue licenses. Those clerks, working in Casey and Whitley counties – which, like Rowan, are rural – haven’t faced legal action as Davis has. She spent five days behind bars this summer for contempt of court.
North Carolina and Utah have passed laws relieving some appointed government officials like court magistrates from performing marriages, if they object on religious grounds. But the exemption applies only to performing weddings, not issuing licenses.
In Alabama, the Associated Press reports that nine county clerks have opted to stop issuing marriage licenses altogether so they don’t have to serve same-sex couples. Both metropolitan and rural counties are on that list.
Back in Tennessee, the clerk of Decatur County, a rural county located between Nashville and Memphis, resigned this summer for religious reasons rather than issue same-sex marriage licenses. The county appointed an interim clerk, who is now issuing licenses.
Other clerks like Wayne Nabors in Putnam County, Tennessee, have issued same-sex licenses, even though they disagree on religious grounds with the Supreme Court ruling. “I have a statutory authority and a job to do,” he told a Nashville television station about his decision. Putnam County is in north-central Tennessee in the Cookeville micropolitan statistical area.
In McMinn County, opinion over same-sex marriage is divided. This summer the county’s board of commissioners unanimously passed a resolution opposing the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. Other counties have enacted similar resolutions seeking to get the state to find a legislative way to avoid allowing same-sex marriages.
People speaking in favor of the McMinn resolution cited Biblical precedent. Tennessee has “fallen prey to a lawless judiciary in legalizing what God and the Bible expressly forbid,” said McMinn County resident Norma Whiting in a July county commission meeting.
(In Blount County, Tennessee, which is part of the Knoxville metropolitan area, a county commissioner submitted a resolution opposing the Supreme Court ruling. But the commission voted 10-5 not to add the resolution to Tuesday night’s agenda. The draft of that resolution, submitted by Commissioner Karen Miller, appealed to both constitutional and religious arguments and asked “God that he pass us by in His Coming Wrath and not destroy our County.”)
The final resolution in McMinn County based its objection to the Supreme Court ruling on states’ rights and does not mention religious principles.
Former McMinn resident Lucas Womack, in an open letter to the commission, said he felt that the resolution was a direct attack on him and others who are gay.
“You have personally sent me a message that I am unwelcome in my hometown,” he wrote. “The intolerance you exhibited … is one reason why I am no longer a resident of your county.” Womack now lives in New York City.
Clerk Hoback said the county commissioner’s resolution carries no legal weight and has nothing to do with how she conducts business in the clerk’s office.
“My responsibilities are to keep our tax dollars safe, do a good job, and stay within my budget,” she said. “It’s not my job to judge the world.”