RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — After a county clerk in Kentucky spent five days in jail last year for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, a Republican lawmaker in Virginia is pushing legislation aimed at protecting local elected officials who object to certain marriages on moral or religious grounds.
Republican Sen. Charles Carrico of Galax, whose southwestern district borders Kentucky, said many of his constituents were concerned about what happened to Kim Davis, the Rowan County clerk, and asked him to help Virginia officials who are put in the same position.
“I’m just trying to clarify what the options are if they have a right-of-conscience issue,” said Carrico, who said he opposes gay marriage.
Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe has already vowed to veto the bill if it passes the GOP-controlled General Assembly.
“Gov. McAuliffe believes legislation like this would send the wrong message to people around the globe about the climate Virginia offers businesses and families who may want to locate here,” Irma Palmer, a McAuliffe spokeswoman, said in a written statement. Republicans would need significant Democratic support to override a veto, which is unlikely.
Davis stopped issuing all marriage licenses the day after the U.S. Supreme Court effectively legalized gay marriage nationwide, saying it would be a sin for her to license a same-sex couple. A federal judge jailed her and ordered her deputy clerks to issue the licenses.
Newly elected Kentucky GOP Gov. Matt Bevin, who supported Davis’ actions, issued an executive order last month removing the names of clerks from marriage licenses in the state in an attempt to protect the religious beliefs of local elected officials. State Senate Republican leaders are pushing legislation that would put Bevin’s order into law.
Carrico’s bill specifies that clerks and deputy clerks wouldn’t have to issue licenses if they object on “personal, ethical, moral or religious grounds.” It would establish a process to ensure that people whose licenses are denied would be able to get one from the Department of Motor Vehicles, Carrico said.
Rene Lamey, the clerk in Lee County, said if Carrico wanted to introduce such a bill, he should have done it sooner. Lee County has been handing out same-sex marriage licenses for some time, so “it’s kind of a moot point at this stage in the game,” she said. Lamey declined to say whether she objects to same-sex marriages on religious or moral grounds.
The Virginia Court Clerks’ Association hasn’t taken a position on whether clerks should be able to refuse licenses, but doesn’t believe the DMV should have the power to hand out licenses, said Chaz Evans-Haywood, Rockingham County Clerk and the group’s president. If the bill moves forward, the group will push to ensure it specifies that if one clerk declines, another clerk in the county or a deputy clerk would have to issue the license, he said.
“We want to make sure that everyone who comes to the door is taken care of equally,” he said.
Utah passed a similar law last year allowing clerks to refuse to marry couples for religious reasons. The law requires a county clerk’s office to designate someone to marry all couples if the clerk opts out.
Meanwhile three couples in North Carolina have gone to court to challenge a state law passed in June that allows local officials who issue licenses to opt out if they have a “sincerely held religious objection.”
James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia, said the Supreme Court’s June ruling has sparked a rush of legislation in Virginia that he considers “harmful or discriminatory” to the LGBT community. Carrico has also introduced legislation that would allow individuals who perform marriages to refuse to do so and allow religious organizations to deny services to certain people if it would cause them to violate their religious beliefs.
“It’s very disappointing,” Parrish said. “Religious freedom doesn’t mean you can deny other people what is required under equal protection under the law.”