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County Clerks Have Become Key Targets in Advancing Gay Marriage
Like melting a block of ice, progress is made by getting hot water down little fissures. And so proponents of gay right to marriage have been making small inlets as of late, amidst the twenty-nine states that have constitutionally defined marriage as between man and women, and the few more who are more ambiguous on the matter, by appealing to county clerks, who are sometimes willing to issue licenses despite extant laws.
This is why a lesbian couple got to know Guilford Country clerk Jeffrey Thigpen, taking him out to coffee, telling him the story of one of their battles with breast cancer, and even praying with him in a grass circle outside his office. Though he wanted to give them the license, Jeffrey didn’t — he felt he couldn’t, and this according to the state’s 2012 constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
“I think deep down in his heart he knew that he should have been giving us a license but he couldn’t do it,” said Tracey Bridges, according to Reuters, who had applied with her partner, Cheryl. “This law doesn’t just hurt couples like us, it hurts people who have to enforce the law.”
“It was very difficult emotionally,” said Thigpen. “I left work. It was a tough day.”
Though there is a 52 percent support of Americans for legalizing gay marriage throughout the states, support is a little less in the South, as in North Carolina where Thigpen works. The grassroots group Campaign for Southern Equality has tried sending out 80 couples to gain licenses or get their marriage licenses from other states recognized, but has been unsuccessful.
Despite this, some clerks are willing to buck the law, or at least work with the ambiguity inherent in the law. Lenny Ellins of New Mexico has been issuing same-sex marriage licenses that have been allowed to stand. In Pennsylvania, a country register did the same but was ordered to stop. New Mexico might have more wiggle room, though Ellins has had to fight for his prerogative.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if other clerks bit the bullet,” said Ellins. “I can’t be the only one there thinking the way I’m thinking.”
He was sued, nevertheless, by several Republican lawmakers, and had to raise $31,000 in private donations to defend against the lawsuit.
“What happened both in New Mexico and Pennsylvania was utter lawlessness. You had two county clerks who felt they were above or outside the law,” said Chris Plantel, spokesman for the National Organization for Marriage. He also said that “What’s going to convince another county clerk in another state to either uphold the law or violate the law is going to be their own perception of what happens.”
With New Mexico and New Jersey’s ambiguity over what makes a marriage, there are some fissures in the block of ice that have made County Clerks the target for deciding the fronts and limits on the progress of the recognition of gay rights to marriage.