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GOP senators vow to protect gay-marriage objectors' rights

by Spencer Willems, Brian Fanney | July 3, 2015 at 4:02 a.m.

Six days after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Arkansas' same-sex marriage ban, the state's 24 Senate Republicans promised to pass legislation so that religious institutions "may choose not to participate in or host marriages that violate their religious beliefs."

But in a news release later Thursday, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson raised doubts about the need for such legislation, noting that the court's ruling "affects government action only. It has no bearing on private individuals or institutions."

"The ability of pastors, churches, and private individuals to follow their own convictions on marriage is protected under the First Amendment and has not been affected by the Supreme Court's ruling," Hutchinson said.

Senate Republicans also said they wanted to "ensure that necessary protections exist in statute to protect county clerks from being forced to violate their religious beliefs about marriage in the performance of their duties."

Earlier this week, Cleburne County Clerk Dana Guffey announced she would resign rather than issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Hutchinson expressed a willingness to consider proposals to bolster protections for those who oppose gay marriage.

"I will continue to determine what legislative action is needed to address the myriad of legal issues that will result from the ruling and also what legislation is needed to respect the churches, pastors ... who cannot follow the dictates of the court," he said.

Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, said Republicans would look for ways county clerks "with sincere religious convictions" wouldn't have to approve marriage licenses for gay couples.

"It is somewhat unfair to change the rules and the interpretation for somebody in the middle of their term," he said. "We need to make some sort of accommodation for them."

But state Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said that public employees don't get to "pick and choose" which parts of the law they'll follow.

She said Thursday's Republican announcement amounted to "demagoguery" and "saber-rattling."

"Most Republican [lawmakers] know better than to do something like this," she added.

In other states, lawmakers are already working to let public officials steer clear of gay marriages.

Last month, Republicans in North Carolina's General Assembly overrode their Republican governor's veto to pass a law that exempts court officials from performing marriages if they have a religious objection.

If an official cites a religious exemption, he cannot perform any marriage for six months.

In Texas, Attorney General Ken Paxton said clerks can choose not to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

In Arkansas, Jerry Cox, president of the Family Council, said after the Supreme Court's decision that clerks could become a point of contention.

"What if a county clerk in their heart of hearts just says, you know, this goes against my conscience, my deeply held religious beliefs to issue this marriage license to a same-sex couple?" he said. "Maybe the county clerk out there feels like he's being violated in his religious beliefs, maybe he feels like he needs to file a lawsuit of some sort."

But Hutchinson said earlier this week that county clerks are part of government and must obey the Supreme Court ruling.

"This is not a matter a matter of discretion," he said. "When someone properly files for a marriage license, it is simply granted."

He noted that software is in place so county clerks don't sign marriage licences.

"I know some county clerks are having a difficult time," he said.

Sen. Jason Rapert said that once Republican lawmakers can reach consensus on how to increase religious protections in the wake of the gay marriage ruling, that a special session should be called.

Metro on 07/03/2015

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