Justice Bill Metzger, of Dallas County, Texas, is citing an opinion from his state’s Attorney General as justification for his decision to ignore the ruling of the United States Supreme Court, and the county’s Democratic party is calling for him to step down.
Carol Donovan, Chair of the Dallas County Democratic Party, released this statement on Friday.
“The Dallas County Democratic Party cannot support any official who is willing to break the law and violate the rights of the citizens she or he was elected to serve. By refusing to officiate same-sex marriages, Judge Bill Metzger is not only violating federal law, as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court, but he is also violating his Oath of Office. Therefore, he must resign.”
In refusing, though, Judge Metzger cites a legal opinion offered by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, found here (PDF).
Specifically, Metzger quotes this single line from the opinion.
“Justices of the peace retain religious freedoms, and may claim that the government cannot force them to conduct same-sex wedding ceremonies over their religious objections.”
Notably, however, this quote is not even the complete sentence from the opinion, much less its full conclusion.
The rest of the sentence in question continues as follows.
“… when other authorized individuals have no objection, because it is not the least restrictive means of the government ensuring the ceremonies occur.”
Furthermore, it is followed by another line, which notes that this “claim” may not carry equal weight in all cases.
“The strength of any such claim depends on the particular facts of each case.”
Taken in full context, Attorney General Paxton’s recommendation is somewhat less supportive of Judge Bill Metzger’s claims. It touches a few possible legal issues: whether a Judge or other public employee is guilty of discrimination if he or she performs one type of marriage but not another, and whether the Judge’s refusal is essentially a denial of the right to marriage.
These are the same questions that have arisen in other states and other case. For example, North Carolina passed a law allowing a judge to opt out of performing marriages, but the judge may not opt out of performing marriages for same-sex couples while continuing to provide the service for opposite-sex couples. Further, the News & Observer notes, there must be some official capable and willing to perform marriage ceremonies available at least 10 hours per week.
Even with these provisions, the constitutionality of that law is still under scrutiny.
Judge Bill Metzger’s final words on the matter in his statement this week acknowledges one of these two points (that a judge may not be able to opt out if this leaves no official willing to perform the ceremony), but ignores the other (the question of discrimination).
“It is clear that any Justice of the Peace in Texas can refuse to perform a non-traditional wedding when that wedding can be performed by others. My sincerely held religious belief keeps me from being forced to conduct anything but a traditional wedding as a Judge per our Attorney General.”
It should also be noted that Judge Metzger has campaigned on a position of “defending traditional marriage,” indicating that this is a political stance, rather than just personal preference.
Speaking to WFAA, both retired Dallas County District Judge John Creuzot and an unnamed Harris County District Attorney asserted that this is the primary problem with Judge Metzger’s claims, explaining that a Judge is not required to perform marriages at all, but cannot choose to follow the law for one group of people while refusing to do so for another.
It should be understood, always, that this demand placed on a judge is not the same for a religious official — clergy are always permitted to deny a marriage for any reason.
As for Judge Bill Metzger, his response to the calls for his resignation remains to be seen, but if he continues to perform marriage ceremonies for opposite-sex couples while denying the same dignity to same-sex couples, a discrimination claim could be in his future — at which point a higher court might have the opportunity to make a binding decision.
[Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images]