In 2014, not long after courts declared West Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, Samantha Brookover and Amanda Abramovich went to the Gilmer County courthouse to obtain their marriage certificate. But the clerk pulled a Kim Davis (even before Kim Davis) and flat-out refused to process their application.
So they waited. Months after the Supreme Court legalized marriage equality nationwide, they went back to the same courthouse — this time with their families — to get their certificate and celebrate with their loved ones.
They ran into the same clerk. And things didn’t go any better.
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.
That sounds so awful, it borders on fiction, but Brookover and Abramovich weren’t making it up. This past April, they filed a lawsuit (with the support of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Fairness West Virginia) against Deputy Clerk Debbie Allen, County Clerk Jean Butcher, and Gilmer County.
“Same-sex couples shouldn’t have to run a gauntlet of harassment, religious condemnation and discrimination in order to realize their dreams of marriage,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, Americans United’s executive director. “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.”
“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,” said Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, the statewide LGBT advocacy organization that is serving as co-counsel on the case. “LGBT couples in Gilmer County, and across West Virginia, should be free to be themselves when encountering government officials.”
The complaint itself held little back in terms of how the couple was affected:
When people marry, they often describe the day as the happiest of their lives. But for Amanda and Samantha, their anniversary is a yearly reminder of the pain and humiliation that they suffered on their wedding day.
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.
This is what conservative Christians want when they fight for “religious freedom.” It’s not about merely having the right to worship as they please; they already have that. It’s about putting other people down in the name of their God and discriminating with no regard for the law.
Well, at least they’re not winning this round.
The two sides announced yesterday that they had reached a settlement. The details aren’t all public, but the county is very clearly apologizing for what their staff member did.
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.)
“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,” said Richard B. Katskee, legal director of Americans United. “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.”
The apology from the county also points out that staffers will undergo additional training:
… [the couple was] disrespected and disparaged by staff at the County Clerk’s Office because they are a same-sex couple. That was wrong.
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.
So because of the bigotry from a conservative Christian clerk, everyone working for the county will have to take classes on how to be a decent human being. I guess they don’t teach that in Conservative Sunday School.
We owe a debt of gratitude to Brookover and Abramovich for going through this (twice!) and pushing the county to change its ways. Because of them, other same-sex couples won’t have to deal with similar harassment from the local government.
***Update***: The couple will also receive $10,000 from the county in the settlement.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)