Last month the LGBTQ community won a decisive victory when the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriages were legal, and must be honored by all US state governments. It was a major milestone for countless couples and activists who had fought for years against the homophobic laws enacted in various states.
However, just days before, Jennicet Gutiérrez an LGBTQ and immigrant activist, highlighted that despite a ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, the country and the US government had much more it needed to do to address injustice. Interrupting President Obama during a speech at the White House, she shouted that to stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ community meant leading on pressing issues, such as the detention and abuse of transgender immigrants in US custody.
Gutiérrez is, of course, correct. Solidarity, especially for cisgender heterosexuals, means more than simply waving a rainbow flag, or accepting a federal government decision. As facebook profiles lit up with rainbow filters following Obergefell v. Hodges, a familiar critique emerged among some Left activists that despite the positive message LGBTQ support sent to friends, family, and the world, social justice required a continuation of pushing the boundaries of oppression in society. In short, one court decision would not “fix” the United States.
To prove this point, several state and county governments demonstrated in the weeks following Obergefell v. Hodges how much further the country needed to go in order to achieve equality.
In Alabama, State Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore has argued local and state governments should not be forced to issue marriage licenses, and that anything other than heterosexual marriage is an affront to God. “They’ve just destroyed the institution of God,” Moore has said in public. “Despite what they think, it’s not their doing. Satan drives us. He’s out there destroying everything God created including us as human beings.”
In Kentucky, Republicans in the state legislature are sponsoring a bill that would allow county clerks to deny marriage licenses to same sex couples on the basis of “religious liberty.” This follows two Kentucky county clerks refusing to comply with the federal ruling, and citing their “Christian beliefs” as justification for denying government services to same-sex couples.
All of these are, of course, not only blatant violations of federal law, but also publicly orchestrated events by the Right to stop social justice for LGBTQ people.
However, outside of these bombastic acts of defiance, there is another front in the fight to deny LGBTQ people equal rights. In states like Ohio, county and municipal officials are quietly working to circumnavigate the spirit of the Supreme Court’s decision by blocking off access to marriage for same-sex couples.
In places like Guernsey County, a small county in southeastern Ohio, government officials are refusing to officiate over marriages. As the Columbus Dispatch initially reported, “None of the three judges in the county is willing to perform any marriage. The same goes for Cambridge Mayor Thomas D. Orr.” This means anyone, same-sex or opposite-sex, who wants a secular marriage performed, are out of luck.
Officials in the county are arguing that such a measure is a result of them being simply “too busy,” a problem many of them never had until the ruling from the Supreme Court, and that same-sex couples can simply go to a church to have the ceremony performed.
This is problematic for several reasons. First, as Guernsey County is a more conservative county the number of ordained clergymen willing to perform a same-sex marriage is small to begin with. Second, it furthers the libertarian argument, popular among many far right-wing activists, that marriage as a civil bond should not be administered by the state, but is a realm only for religious institutions. Third, although individuals have the ability to go to another county to get a marriage licenses, this puts an unfair burden on same-sex couples to go out of their way to secure a government service, as well as secular couples who do not want to use a religious congregation. Finally, according to Ohio law, only government officials and ordained members of a religious organization can officiate marriage ceremonies.
Taken together, this development should be an alarm bell for LGBTQ people and Left activists. What Guernsey County government officials are doing is demonstrating that an alternative path is open for Right-wing attacks on LGBTQ rights. Unlike Chief Justice Moore, or the Kentucky county clerks, figures in Ohio are using the law to legally disenfranchise the people they were elected and appointed to represent.
The US has a dark history of using state, municipal, and county laws and governments to disenfranchise its citizens. No one in Ohio is publicly saying they will defy federal law. All they are publicly saying is that they won’t offer a service anymore. Perfectly legal. Of course, this suspension of services effects on segment of the population more than the other. Religious and conservative couples will be able to get marriage licenses with little or no problem. Secular and LGBTQ couples will have further barriers placed in front of them.
So, while the national news is focusing on the outrageous cases of clerks and states outright refusing to offer same-sex couples marriage licenses, Ohio is doing something far quieter, and much more sinister. Parts of Ohio are showing how under the new federal ruling communities can legalize oppression. They are, in short, using the law to break the ruling of the Court.
This is cause for alarm, but not despair. Already activists in Ohio are pushing to change Ohio state law, so that officiating a marriage can be done by citizens in a secular manner. This would circumnavigate the monopoly Republican county governments, and conservative churches have on the institution of marriage.
As one petition to the state government states (which you are all encouraged to sign), “concern comes from recent changes in the Federal recognition of marriage, and the failure of some local authorities to serve certain sections of our State’s population…[in some counties]…it leaves an issue for those of us who wish to have no religious affiliation associated with either our union or the performance of marriage ceremonies. This is also a concern for those of us who have no religious affiliation who wish to, or have been invited to officiate the unions of friends and loved ones.”
As Jennicet Gutiérrez, and other LGBTQ activists have demonstrated, this pressure from people is what will hold governments accountable, especially those that perpetuate injustice. The alternative is silence, and as Alabama, Kentucky, and now parts of Ohio demonstrate that is simply not an option.
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.