Texas' Republican leaders suffered a historic loss on Friday when the U.S. Supreme Court held that state bans on gay marriage are unconstitutional. But social conservatives vowed not to go down without a fight.
In a somber and defiant statement, Attorney General Ken Paxton proclaimed his next battlefront would be in defense of religious liberty.
“The truth is that the debate over the issue of marriage has increasingly devolved into personal and economic aggression against people of faith who have sought to live their lives consistent with their sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage,” he said. “It is not acceptable that people of faith be exposed to such abuse.”
Hours later, Gov. Greg Abbott sent a memo to the heads of state agencies directing them to “preserve, protect, and defend the religious liberty of every Texan." That order “applies to any agency decision,” including granting or denying benefits, the memo says.
A spokesman for Abbott clarified the policy in a statement Friday afternoon.
"The governor’s directive does not authorize or order state agencies to deny benefits to same-sex couples," John Wittman, the spokesman, said. "The directive ensures that individuals doing business with the state cannot be discriminated against because of their religious beliefs."
Abbott’s office directed questions about who would enforce such a policy to the attorney general. A spokeswoman for the attorney general did not immediately return to a request for comment.
Those celebrating the gay marriage ruling, including civil liberties groups and gay rights advocates, said Texas’ Republican leadership seemed to be picking a fight.
“I think a lot of us anticipated that this would be the next front, that there are going to be some public officials around the country who are going to try to use religious liberty as a way to avoid complying with the ruling,” said Rebecca Robertson, legal and policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “But we don’t agree that government offices that are open to the public should be able to pick and choose, on the basis of personal religious beliefs, which citizens to help and which citizens to turn away."
Added Robertson: “We may end up having to litigate some of these issues."
Daniel Williams, legislative director for the gay rights group Equality Texas, said that if a state agency employee denied spousal benefits to another employee in a same-sex marriage, it would be “setting itself up for a very short-lived legal challenge.”
“The ruling today was pretty explicit that the state may not impose upon same-sex couples a definition of marriage that excludes them,” he said.
Paxton said Friday he would give directions to county clerks about handing out marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Following the ruling Friday morning, some Texas counties promptly began issuing licenses, while others said they were waiting for Paxton’s instructions.
Prior to the ruling, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick sent a public statement to Paxton, asking whether there were a way to let religious county officials opt out of issuing same-sex marriage licenses.
“County clerks and Justices of the Peace could be forced to subjugate their sincerely held religious beliefs,” Patrick wrote. “The practical reality of this conflict will occur throughout the state.”