Gay Marriage in Dixie

Gay Marriage in Dixie

By Hastings Wyman –

What was the impact in the South of the US Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriages in all fifty states?

The short answer is, not much. Many folks in the Bible Belt aren’t too keen on gay matrimony, but inasmuch as it’s not costing anybody anything, and it’s now the law of the land, life will go on pretty much as before the ruling.

The longer answer, however, is that in at least two states, Texas and Louisiana, prominent officeholders who are running for the Republican presidential nomination are attempting to give legs to the controversy, in hopes of improving their chances of winning over the GOP’s hard right and evangelical voters.

Harvey Kronberg, editor and publisher of the Houston-based Quorum Report, says “There’s been much flailing and gnashing of teeth, mostly on the part of the Ted Cruz wing of the party. [The decision] gave Cruz a platform to beat his chest in Iowa and South Carolina.” Indeed, Cruz, a US Senator and presidential candidate, referred to the decision as “the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history.”

Gov. Greg Abbott (R) is touting the already-enacted Pastor Protection Act, which says clergy do not have to perform same-sex weddings if they conflict with their religious beliefs. And Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) issued an opinion that county clerks with religious beliefs could refuse to perform gay weddings and let someone else in their office officiate. He further said that if a refusing clerk faced a lawsuit, he would support him or her.

Despite the protestations of Abbott and Paxton, however, both the 5th Circuit and federal district judges have made it clear that now that the US Supreme Court has ruled, county clerks have a legal obligation to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The only out for those with religious objections to gay matrimony is to allow someone else in the same office to issue the license.

Moreover, while the political posturing was going on, the University of Texas System, the Texas A&M University System, the state’s Teacher Retirement System, and the Employees Retirement System all announced they will provide benefits to spouses in same-sex marriages.

This is not to say that all Texans like the idea of same-sex marriage, although a plurality favor it. According to a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, 48% of Texans favor gay matrimony to 43% who are against it, compared to 54% of all Americans who favor it. In Texas, support is strong among the young, Democrats, and white mainline Protestants. Opposition is strong among seniors, Republicans and white evangelicals. By race and ethnicity, a plurality of whites and Hispanics support same-sex marriage, but a majority of blacks – 55% – oppose it.

In Louisiana, the top politicians are taking the same path as those in Texas.

Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), also a presidential candidate, issued an executive order allowing individuals who have a religious or conscience objection to decline to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. If they are subject to lawsuits, the state will provide legal representation. State Attorney General Buddy Caldwell (R) made a similar statement.

“I don’t think Jindal is going to go down quietly,” says Joshua Shockley, political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. “He sees this as an opportunity to appeal to evangelicals. I expect he will at least attempt to exercise any authority he thinks he has on this issue.”

But, as in Texas, there are no legal avenues left for opponents of the high court’s decision. Adds Shockley, “I don’t expect any state or parish courts to do anything that might be in violation of the Supreme Court. I expect most county clerks will start to quietly issue licenses” to same-sex couples.

A Baton Rouge insider, knowledgeable about the state’s government and politics, says “Some of the clerks are going on now and issuing licenses to same-sex couples.” As for how the public is reacting, this source comments, “Like any of the other social issues, 20% of the public on either end feel very strongly about it. For the other 60%, it’s live and let live and do your own thing.”

Other Southern governors are expressing their opposition to the court’s ruling, but have acknowledged it is now the law. In Alabama, Gov. Robert

Bentley (R) said, “We will follow the rule of law…. We can express our disagreements verbally as I have. But I have to uphold not only the constitution of Alabama, but I swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States and we will uphold the law of the United States.” Local officials in 22 counties in the state say they will refuse to implement the Supreme Court’s ruling, but a federal judge has ordered all probate judges in the state to issue licenses to same-sex couples.

In Arkansas, “This decision goes against the expressed view of Arkansas and my personal beliefs…,” said Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), but he added, “[A]s Governor I recognize the responsibility of the state to follow the direction of the US Supreme Court…. I will direct all state agencies to comply with the decision.”

In Mississippi, there was some back-and-forth between Gov. Phil Bryant (R) state Attorney General Jim Hood (D) over whether the state should continue its ongoing case against same-sex marriage in federal court. But the bottom line is that following the Supreme Court’s ruling, Hood ordered clerks to begin issuing marriage licenses and they have done so. One circuit court clerk, however, did resign rather than issue the license, citing the Bible’s objection to homosexuality.