Ga. judges issue same-sex marriage licenses despite personal views

In Kentucky county, marriage licenses flow as clerk remains in jail

Donald Boyd is a Christian and believes that marriage is a union between one man and one woman.

But when a lesbian couple earlier this year entered Boyd’s Troup County probate court they left with a license allowing them to wed.

“The law says what the law says,” Boyd told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an interview from his office near the Alabama border. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. “We don’t have discretion.”

In the struggle over gay marriage, a defiant county clerk from Kentucky — jailed this week for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples — has grabbed the national spotlight. Kim Davis has become a polarizing symbol; supporters are lionizing her as a courageous martyr for her beliefs while opponents are casting the four-times married county official as a hypocrite and intolerant.

On Friday, with Davis behind bars, her deputies began handing out licenses to gay couples who arrived at the Rowan County courthouse after fighting their way through throngs of demonstrators gathered outside. Some chanted Bible verses and others yelled, “love won.” The showdown showed no signs of letting up. Davis’ lawyers said she wouldn’t back down and that the marriage licenses issued in her absence were void. Conservative presidential hopeful Michael Huckabee said he planned to visit her in jail before rallying with supporters outside the detention center on Tuesday.

ExploreBut in counties around Georgia, local officials and judges — like Boyd — are quietly looking past their personal religious convictions to follow the law.

Chase Daughtrey, former head of the state’s council of probate judges, said he’s not aware of any court that has refused to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple in Georgia.

“Probate judges have taken an oath, with hand to God, to perform their duties according to the law, without favor or affection, and further swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the great state of Georgia,” the Cook County probate court judge said.

Across Georgia — even in deeply conservative corners of the state — probate judges had a common refrain: They would do their duty and follow the Supreme Court’s order.

In tiny Baker County, not a single same-sex couple has walked into the courtroom of probate judge Angela Hendricks. But she said she wouldn’t hesitate if they did.

“I am following the rule of the law. I don’t have any issues with anyone,” said Hendricks. “It’s not a controversy here at all.”

In Colquitt County, in southwest Georgia, just one gay couple has come to seek a marriage license. It was issued with little fanfare.

“We got the directive to follow what comes down,” said Wesley Lewis from his office in Moultrie. “Listen, there’s no doubt that it’s touchy. I don’t really have personal objections to it, though. And, you know, you got to follow the law. It is what it is. And you just have to follow it.”

In Quitman County, the state’s second-smallest county, there’s not much foot traffic for people applying for marriage licenses at the courthouse. Only a handful of the county’s 2,400 residents get hitched each year. And no applicants, so far, are same-sex couples.

Probate Judge Henry Lewis Balkcom said the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling may not be popular around town, but his responsibility is clear.

“As a judge, I’m not supposed to divulge my opinion, so I won’t,” said Balkcom. “But I can tell you what I would do. No matter what, we’re following the law.”

That stands in stark contrast to the emotional standoff taking place in the foothills of the Appalachians in eastern Kentucky. U.S. District Judge David Bunning had offered to release Davis if she promised not to interfere with her employees issuing licenses, but she refused, citing her Christian beliefs.

William Smith Jr. and James Yates had sought five times to receive a marriage license in Rowan County. On Friday, the couple of nearly decade was finally permitted to pay a $35 fee and obtain the paperwork allowing them to wed.

After tending to the ministerial details, Yates rushed across the steps of the courthouse to hug his mom as both cried.

“This means at least for this area that civil rights are civil rights and they are not subject to belief,” said Yates.

A crowd of supporters cheered as the couple left, while a street preacher rained down words of condemnation.

Amanda Hill-Attkisson, deputy director for Georgia Equality, said she worries that the attention on Davis, especially now that she is in jail, may energize opponents of same-sex marriage.

“We are concerned that this shifts from a conversation about discrimination to one about persecution,” she said.

And in the religious community, the issue has ignited soul searching about the line between church and state.

The Rev. Roger W.F. Skepple, pastor of Berean Bible Baptist Church, is against same-sex marriage.

“I stand with her (Davis) in exercising her religious conscience,” he said. However, “she has to be willing to accept the consequences of her civil disobedience.”

He thinks the state should have found a way for that office to fulfill its obligations, while letting Davis following her Christian beliefs.

“Like it or not, gay marriage is the law of the land.”

The Rev. Glenn Ethridge, senior pastor at Decatur’s Oak Grove UMC, was pragmatic about the clerk’s arrest.

“When serving in a government role, you have to perform the duties according to the law and the law requires that you issue licenses,” Ethridge said. “As a matter of conscience, she could resign or in an act of civil disobedience, might choose to serve jail time, but she does not have the right – in the conduct of her official duties – to create her own rules.”

And even among churches there are conflicting points of view.

Ethridge thinks same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, but “in my denomination, I have to honor the rules.”

The United Methodist Church does not allow clergy to perform same-sex marriages and churches from hosting such ceremonies.