On a tangent to my previous post about whether today’s opinion requires clergy to marry same-sex couples (as I noted, it doesn’t), it’s been asked whether the ruling allows public officials (clerks, magistrates, etc.) to opt out of issuing marriage licenses or marrying same-sex couples, when that otherwise would be their responsibility, if they have religious objections to doing so.
This issue isn’t as clear cut, and it’s likely that the courts will have to settle it. Recently, North Carolina’s legislature passed a law specifically in this regard — and overriding the governor’s veto — allowing government officials to opt out of performing marriages or registering licenses for same-sex couples, as long as they opt out of doing so for any and all marriages and as long as there is someone available to ensure that a same-sex couple isn’t turned away. In New York a clerk refused to issue licenses to same-sex couples, and she was allowed to keep her job as long as there was a deputy clerk available to ensure same-sex couples weren’t turned away.
Some may feel that it’s a worthwhile accommodation, as long as the couple still can get a license, or still can find a government official to marry them. I strongly disagree. Personally, I think there should be no religious exemptions for public servants. Civil marriage is not a religious rite, and those who are paid by the public to serve the public should have to serve all the public. There’s just no religious justification, in my mind, that allows someone to refuse to issue a civil marriage license, especially when that person is working to uphold the law and on the taxpayer’s dime.
Letting a government official pick and choose whom they serve sends a government-endorsed message that some members of the public are more equal than others, that some citizens of the country are more worthy, that some people are unclean. We abolished separate lunch counters and drinking fountains; we shouldn’t institute separate clerk’s desks. That’s just not a message or a practice the government should endorse.