In a resounding victory for gay rights, the US Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that states could not refuse to marry same-sex couples. Ruling that “the right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person,” the majority opinion of the Obergefell decision paved the way for the immediate issuance of marriage licenses for same-sex couples across the nation. Unfortunately, despite this new interpretation of the constitution, some local judges have continued to refuse marriage licenses for same-sex couples by using religious belief as a justification.
For example, in Hood County, Texas, County Clerk Katie Lang refused to issue marriage licenses by citing “religious liberty,” according to ABC News. Ironically, in this situation, whether the principle of same-sex marriage is justified is not the issue. It is that refusing compliance with the highest judicial authority goes against the very principle of the rule of law. Public servants are free to disagree personally with the court’s decision, but that does not excuse them from having to comply with it. To prevent setting a dangerous precedent in which court decisions hold no weight, the federal government has an obligation to sue entities that refuse to comply with the Obergefell ruling.
The primary argument of objectors has been religious freedom, and how the issuance of marriage licenses potentially goes against the beliefs of the clerks. Granted, religious freedom is a key value that has formed the bedrock of American society, and respecting the plurality within the population includes allowing individuals to practice their own personal faiths. Yet religious freedom does not apply in this case. Compared to a situation in which a private church could legally refuse to marry people who have been divorced, a religious individual working for a secular government cannot let personal beliefs get in the way of public duty. Public employees, specifically court clerks, are paid by taxpayers to do their jobs. Government employees do not have a constitutional right to choose which members of the public they wish to serve, regardless of personal beliefs. Such is the consequence the employees must face after swearing an oath to uphold the Constitution.
Parallels to this situation can be drawn with previous controversial court decisions, in which officials would cite personal religious beliefs to defend all manner of discrimination. Religious beliefs were referred to in Loving v. Virginia, in which Supreme Court struck down laws banning interracial marriage in 1967. The end result was a ripple of resistance in the South that was quickly subdued by the federal government using a surge of lawsuits against local governments unwilling to comply. Today, history vindicates the federal government for taking the hard stance against non-compliant local governments, and the federal government must take similar actions today.
As students ourselves, we have seen in history the countless times the Supreme Court took controversial progressive stances, from the desegregation of schools in 1954 to the legalization of abortion in 1973. Yet, at the same time, the consequences of a federal government that fails to enforce its laws have been clear for centuries, with the warning of the Founding Fathers about the necessity of a Supreme Court to have the final say on constitutional issues.
It is contradictory that local governments, while claiming to uphold the Constitution, are in fact weakening its essence. The Constitution’s protection of religious freedom cannot include the right to ignore its ultimate arbiter, and it is high time the government took strong legal action to act on such a principle.