Claiming religious freedom is proving a poor defense for denying service to same-sex couples getting married


From left, Troi, Trevr, Rick O’Connor and Daren Merchant

DAVID TAFFET  |  Senior Staff Writer

Despite the Texas Legislature taking pains to pass something — anything — to pander to religious interests during its last session, this hasn’t been a good week to use religion as an excuse to discriminate. From county clerks to a chef employed by a Richardson hotel, anti-gay forces are learning that marriage equality is moving from novelty to entrenched law.

Hood County’s Katie Lang was the first and loudest county clerk in Texas to insist her office wouldn’t issue marriage licenses, because same-sex marriage violated her religious beliefs.

In June, Lang denied Granbury couple Jim Cato and Joe Stapleton a marriage license. They hired an attorney and sent Lang the bill. Elected officials can be held personally liable for failing to act or for taking unauthorized actions on the part of the county.

Lang settled and is personally on the hook for $44,000.

Kim Davis, the county clerk in Rowan County, Ky., faced contempt of court charges for repeatedly refusing to issue or allow her deputy clerks to issue marriage licenses.

A week ago, Davis asked U.S. District Judge David Bunning, who ruled against her in June but stayed his decision pending her appeal, to extend the stay as her case works its way through the courts. Bunning refused, and she lost her bid to extend the stay in appeals to the Sixth Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court.

In rejecting her request for an extension of the stay, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled there is “little or no likelihood that the Clerk in her official capacity will prevail on appeal.”

When Davis asked Justice Elena Kagan, who oversees the Sixth Circuit, to extend the stay, Kagan referred the case to the full court, which also declined her request.

On Thursday, Davis and her six deputy clerks appeared in U.S. District Court where she was found in contempt of court. Rather than a fine, which the five couples suing her had requested, Bunning put her in jail, because he said someone would just pay the fine. He said she’d remain there until she was ready to issue licenses. Meanwhile, other county officials were able to begin issuing licenses.

While a few elected officials around the country have tried to grandstand against the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision, most of the controversy has revolved around individual wedding photographers, bakers and florists who claim their right to religious freedom in refusing to “participate” in same-sex weddings by denying service to same-sex couples.

Most businesses have embraced the marriage equality decision because, if nothing else, it means extra revenue. But in Richardson, a gay couple was told the chef at the Richardson Garden Hilton Inn said he wouldn’t cook for a same-sex couple.

Daren Merchant and Rick O’Connor, a Rowlett couple who’ve been together 24 years and raised kids together, hoped to book the Richardson hotel where their daughter worked for a Jan. 1 wedding. While the hotel owners didn’t deny their request, the chef said he wouldn’t cook for a gay couple.

After the story hit social media and local news, the hotel sent an apology. When the couple wasn’t sure of the sincerity of the apology, the hotel asked the president of the Texas Hotel And Lodging Association to intervene.

“We had a very long conversation, and at the end of the conversation I felt very comfortable with what he had to say,” Merchant said.

They discussed their concerns and came up with what Merchant called “a very agreeable solution” including a discount. Merchant said he wanted time to discuss it with O’Connor.

Meanwhile, Merchant said, the hotel contacted him and assured him there had been a staffing change.

Originally, Merchant said, they chose the property for a number of reasons. In addition to his daughter working there, he called it a good fit as far as price and number of guests.

“Rick and I are considering the offer but this situation has really tarnished the day we have waited for since we met in 1991,” he said. “We are not sure we are comfortable with this property hosting anything for us.”

Their wedding is that important to them. While price is a consideration, they don’t want that to be an overriding factor in planning a day they’ve looked forward to for 24 years. And their daughter has accepted a position at another hotel.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 4, 2015.