WV: Lesbian Couple Suing Over Harassment While Obtaining Marriage License
When marriage equality became law in their hometown in 2014 following the federal court decision in Bostic v. Schaefer, Samantha Brookover and Amanda Abramovich sought out a marriage license in Gilmer County, West Virginia. They were met with derision, harassment and hatred and refused an application by the county clerk’s office. Sixteen months later (following the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v Hodges that made marriage equality law of the land nationwide), they tried again and were met with the same level of vitriol and harassment.
Despite that discrimination, they successfully filed for a marriage license application. That success didn’t come without long-lasting repercussions. That’s why Brookover and Abramovich just filed a lawsuit against Gilmer County and several officials that either engaged in or condoned the religion-based harassment they endured throughout the process.
Writing at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) – the organization helping file the lawsuit – the couple described the level of harassment they endured at the hands of Gilmer County officials:
Sixteen months later – well after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld marriage equality – we went to the courthouse again for a marriage license. This time, we brought family members with us who were excited to take part in our special day.
When we arrived, the same clerk was on duty. When we asked her for a marriage license, she began shouting at us that we are “an abomination.” She yelled that our desire to marry was wrong and that she believed that God would “deal” with us in time. We asked her to stop, and she told us that she has a religious right to talk this way to us.
In the end, she processed our marriage application – but not before we were left shaking and in tears.
When we complained to the county clerk about this abusive behavior, she defended it and said that any future same-sex couples seeking to marry would receive the same treatment – or worse.
No one should be forced to endure the pain and humiliation Brookover and Abramovich experienced in merely attempting to obtain a government-maintained service in their hometown. Religious proselytization has no place in government services. Moreover, using personal religious belief to deny service and harass taxpayers using a taxpayer-funded government role constitutes a serious breach of constitutional duties.
Discussing the lawsuit against Deputy Clerk Debbie Allen, County Clerk Jean Butcher, and Gilmer County, AU executive director Rev. Barry Lynn argued, “Same-sex couples shouldn’t have to run a gauntlet of harassment, religious condemnation and discrimination in order to realize their dreams of marriage.” Lynn added, “Government officials must apply the law fairly to everyone, regardless of religious beliefs. If these clerks are unable to fulfill their duties, they shouldn’t work in a government office.”
Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, echoed that sentiment in a statement saying, “West Virginia is a place that’s known for its hospitality and its adherence to the Golden Rule, to treat others as you’d like to be treated. The behavior of the Gilmer County clerks violates those values by perpetuating fear and intimidation in our community.” Schneider added, “LGBT couples in Gilmer County, and across West Virginia, should be free to be themselves when encountering government officials.”
Fairness West Virginia will be serving as co-counsel with AU presenting Brookover and Abramovich’s lawsuit.
In that lawsuit, the two organizations argue in part:
Here, same-sex couples are not afforded the right to marry on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples because officials at the Gilmer County Clerk’s Office intimidate, humiliate, and harass them when they exercise their legal right to apply for and obtain a marriage license. And when a deputy clerk demeans, insults, or chastises a same-sex couple attempting to obtain a marriage license, County Clerk Jean Butcher defends their behavior because it is consistent with her personal religious convictions.
When Deputy Clerk Debbie Allen saw that a same-sex couple was applying for a marriage license, she did not provide the license on the same terms as for opposite-sex couples. Instead, Allen launched into a tirade of harassment and disparagement. She slammed her paperwork down on her desk, screaming that the couple was an “abomination” to God and that God would “deal” with them. Her rant continued for several minutes. Another clerk joined in, encouraging Allen’s attack on Amanda and Samantha by shouting “it’s [Allen’s] religious right” to harass same-sex couples while performing the official state duties of the Clerk’s office.
Throughout the attack, Amanda remained silent and shaking; Samantha was brought to tears.
When Samantha’s mother later called County Clerk Butcher to report the abusive attack on her daughter and her daughter’s fiancée, Butcher said that the couple deserved it and that the next same-sex couple who attempted to get a marriage license in Gilmer County would get the same or worse.
That’s not all.
After issuing the marriage license, and in a further attempt to deter the couple from marrying, Allen told Amanda and Samantha that officials in Gilmer County had stopped performing marriages after the County had become legally required to recognize same-sex marriages and that no one in Gilmer County would marry the couple.
The lawsuit summarizes the harassment and discrimination concluding:
Amanda and Samantha were made to wait some sixteen months after their initial, lawful application for a marriage license because they were improperly turned away by Defendant Allen. Not only did they suffer emotional distress because of the wrongful denial, but during the intervening period they were denied all the legal (as well as emotional) benefits of marriage, including benefits and privileges under federal and state law; legal rights to make healthcare decisions rights for one’s spouse; legal rights and presumptions concerning the ability to hold real property, bank accounts, and other property in common; important and valuable rights under West Virginia’s estate and intestacy laws; and a host of other privileges under West Virginia family law.
Moreover, the Clerk’s Office is located in the Gilmer County Courthouse, where other government services are provided.
Amanda and Samantha must visit the Courthouse every year to pay property taxes on their automobiles.
Amanda and Samantha are in the process of looking for a house to purchase and, should they do so, will need to visit the Courthouse every year to pay property taxes.
Samantha wishes to register to vote in Gilmer County but fears that she will be harassed once again by Allen at the Courthouse.
Amanda and Samantha reasonably fear that, because of the unconstitutional policies of the Gilmer County Clerk, they will be deprived of equal access to government services in the Gilmer County Courthouse. And they reasonably fear that, when they are forced to enter the Courthouse, they will again be harangued and mistreated by Clerk’s Office personnel.
Using personal religion to discriminate and harass others using a government position is unconstitutional. It not only violates the Establishment Clause, but also deprives victims their Equal Protection and Due Process rights.
That county officials admitted publicly they would treat all same-sex couples similarly strengthens the case – particularly since federal courts have repeatedly ruled that LGBTQ status cannot be singled out as reasoning for offering differential treatment in government services.
While this should be an open and shut case, given the current federal administration it could become a drawn out affair if the Sessions Justice Department decides to weigh in on the county’s behalf.