Settlement Reached in Lawsuit Filed By WV Lesbian Couple Over Harassment

Samantha Brookover and Amanda Abramovich

After repeated harassment and verbal abuse in attempting to obtain a marriage license, a West Virginia lesbian couple sued Gilmer County officials over being impeded in exercising their constitutional rights in addition to being harassed in the process. The county reached a settlement with the couple this week that includes a public apology as well as a $10,000 judgment.

Trouble first began three years ago in 2014 when, following the federal court decision in Bostic v. Schaefer that confirmed LGBTQ couples in West Virginia have access to marriage, Samantha Brookover and Amanda Abramovich decided to get married. When the county refused, they waited over a year and then attempted a second time following the nationwide decision in Obergefell. Upon visiting the county clerk’s office in 2016, they were once again harassed by taxpayer-funded county staff.

We reported at the time:

When a lesbian couple applied for a marriage license last week Gilmer County deputy county clerk Debbie Allen screamed at them, called them an abomination, and quoted Bible verses. The religious confrontation comes only days after the West Virginia legislature introduced a bill that would legalize virtually all forms of discrimination so long as it’s based in religious belief.

The incident in Gilmer County began when Samantha Brookover and her fiancé Amanda Abramovich entered Allen’s county clerk office with family, friends and cameras to commemorate the occasion. As Debbie Allen processed their license application, she proselytized and humiliated the couple in front of the crowd.

Writing at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) – the organization who helped 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.

Based on the deplorable treatment they received, the couple sued earlier this year. We wrote about the lawsuit in April:

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.”

The lawsuit didn’t spare any of the gory details the couple experienced in attempting to get married, either:

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.

You can read the full complaint here.

As of yesterday, the county decided that a public trial publicizing the abhorrent treatment the couple endured would be too much for their public relations to handle, so they settled out of court. Americans United noted in a press release yesterday:

As part of the settlement, Gilmer County agreed to apologize to Abramovich and Brookover and issue a public statement regarding the wrongdoing by the County Clerk’s office. They also promised to take steps to ensure that county officials and employees do not discriminate against anyone in the future, regardless of religious beliefs about sexual orientation or gender identity. Finally, the county agreed to pay damages in recognition of the harms Abramovich and Brookover suffered. (Gilmer County’s statement is available here.)

In their statement, Gilmer County said:

On February 3, 2016, Samantha Brookover and Amanda Abramovich went to the Gilmer County courthouse to apply for a marriage license, which they were legally entitled to receive. Although they received that marriage license, they were disrespected and disparaged by staff at the County Clerk’s Office because they are a same-sex couple. That was wrong. It is the policy of Gilmer County and the Gilmer County Clerk’s Office that all people seeking services and doing business with the County will be
treated courteously and with respect regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The County Commission and Clerk will take steps to ensure that their employees comply with this policy.

Gilmer County and the Gilmer County Clerk have agreed to resolve the lawsuit that Ms. Brookover and Ms. Abramovich filed against them regarding the treatment received in applying for a marriage license. The Clerk’s Office has apologized to Ms. Brookover and Ms. Abramovich for the way that they were treated, and the County has paid damages in recognition of the harms that they suffered. The County has also agreed to require all officials and employees of the County Commission and County Clerk’s Office to take part in a training program provided by Fairness West Virginia to help ensure that County policy is followed and the mistreatment that Ms. Brookover and Ms. Abramovich received does not recur.

Americans United legal director Richard B. Katskee reacted to the settlement saying, “We’re glad Gilmer County recognizes that the clerk’s actions toward Amanda and Samantha were wrong, and that county officials are taking steps to ensure that all who do business with Gilmer County are treated equally and with respect.” He added, “We wish that Amanda and Samantha hadn’t suffered mistreatment and harassment on their wedding day, and we hope that they can take comfort in knowing that their brave actions to right this wrong should prevent future couples from experiencing what they went through.”

Abramovich and Brookover also released a separate statement. “When we went to get our marriage license, this was the last thing we expected. We were presented with two options: accept this treatment and leave the possibility that other couples would have to endure this as well, or speak up for ourselves and hopefully stop it from continuing.” They added, “Consenting adults should never be made to feel embarrassed or ashamed when marrying the person they love. It will be a comfort to know that this behavior will no longer be allowed in the Gilmer County Courthouse.”

In addition to the apology, Gilmer County will also pay the couple $10,000 in damages and has agreed to require all employees to undergo training provided by Fairness West Virginia – an LGBTQ advocacy organization.

PREVIOUSLY:

Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he's worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.

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