July 24, 2015

What New Lawsuit Means For Gay Rights, Religious Liberty

A Harrison County clerk is filing a lawsuit saying she was fired for allegedly refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses. - file photo

A Harrison County clerk is filing a lawsuit saying she was fired for allegedly refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

file photo

A lawsuit filed in federal court last week alleging a county employee’s religious beliefs were violated when she was fired from her job could be indicative of the next chapter in the debate over same-sex marriage and religious liberties.

Linda Summers was terminated from her job at the Harrison County Clerk’s Office in December 2014. She says it was because she told her boss she did not want to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, which would have been against her “sincerely held” religious beliefs.

Indiana University Maurer School of Law professor Steve Sanders suggests the case could exemplify how conservatives are choosing to respond to the recent Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide.

“I think what it shows is some religious conservatives are going to become more aggressive in asserting their identity or expressive acts of speech dissenting against gay rights,” Sanders says.

That distinction is important legally.

“The question will be are those acts of dissent really exercises of religion? Is this really burdening someone’s religious right or is this somebody essentially asserting their religious status or religious identity and saying that the rest of the world essentially has to conform to their beliefs?” Sanders says.

Summers’ attorneys are arguing the clerk’s office could have easily accommodated Summers because there were two other employees in the clerk’s office who were willing to process same-sex marriage applications so she wouldn’t have to.

Sanders does not believe that argument will hold up in court, though, because issuing marriage licenses is part of Summers’ job description, and it’s likely that there would have been times when other employees would not be available.

“I think there would be a strong argument that allowing her to hold herself above the law and say ‘I don’t have to do this’ would be a disruption to the workplace,” Sanders says.

Sanders also predicts Summers has an “uphill battle” because historically the Supreme Court has held that the government does not have to make accommodations when implementing a law that is neutral and apply to everyone.

The fact that Summers is a public employee could play into the case because the government is supposed to remain morally neutral.

In the legal complaint, Summers’ lawyers cite the Harrison County Personnel Policies Handbook that requires the county provide “equal employment opportunity” to all employs and “prohibit discrimination in employment because of race, religion,” etc.

The lawsuit names Harrison County and Harrison County Clerk Sally Whitis as defendants and was filed in a U.S district court in New Albany, Ind.

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