Judge Rules Against Religious Accommodation for Mississippi Clerks

Photo credit: American Life League via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)
Photo credit: American Life League via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

On Monday, a federal district judge appointed by President Obama struck down the section of Mississippi’s new religious freedom law allowing certain government employees to seek recusal from issuing marriage licenses or performing marriage ceremonies in violation of their sincerely held religious or moral beliefs. Judge Carlton Reeves ruled that the relevant officials must deal with all couples, whether opposite-sex or same-sex, in the same way. (Right now the order applies only to same-sex couples rather than polygamous or incestuous unions. But once the Supreme Court extends its Obergefell analysis to polygamy and incest, as it logically must, presumably this judge will extend his ruling accordingly.)

Examining the statutory provision struck down by Judge Reeves shows how alarmingly totalitarian the leftist mindset is on this issue. The statute allows affected officials to seek recusal without reprisal from the government employer, but the recused official is responsible for ensuring “that the authorization and licensing of any legally valid marriage is not impeded or delayed as a result of any recusal.” The statute thus protects the newly discovered right of same-sex couples to be legally married without even a delay. The provision merely requires that the clerk’s beliefs be accommodated if possible.

But even this is too much for the left, which demands not only equal treatment for same-sex couples, which they enjoy under this statute, but that everyone in their orbit pay homage to their actions. It is not enough that a clerk accommodate a same-sex couple’s demand for a marriage license by asking someone else in the office to issue it; rather, her labor must be dragooned — unnecessarily — in service of a result she finds morally objectionable.

There is something sinister about this. It reeks of Soviet-style tyranny, employed to alter the citizen’s thinking — to sanction no private space in which he or she is allowed to dissent from the State-sponsored orthodoxy. The judge and his ideological comrades are determined to control not only how every person acts, but ultimately, how every person thinks. Disagreement can mean unemployment. Perhaps, someday, it will mean something worse than that.

Mississippi also has a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which requires accommodation of religious beliefs when that can be done without interfering with a compelling government interest. Presumably Mississippi clerks who object to participating in same-sex unions could state a claim under the RFRA, although given the balancing test imposed by RFRA, and the existence of ideologues on the bench, the clerks might lose under that statute as well. But it’s difficult to see how allowing Clerk A rather than Clerk B to issue the license in any way disadvantages the couple seeking the license.

Unless what they want is more than a license — unless what they really demand is universal approval, and genuflection to the new State religion.

Jane Robbins is an attorney and a senior fellow with the American Principles Project.