The legal battle over same-sex marriage may have ended, but its value as a wedge issue remains intact — a fact governors in Kansas and Missouri demonstrated Tuesday.
In Missouri, Gov. Jay Nixon ordered state boards and agencies to “immediately” implement the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26 decision protecting same-sex marriage.
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A few minutes later, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback ordered agencies in his state to protect clergy from legal complaints if they object to same-sex ceremonies.
The orders — one endorsing the ruling, the other criticizing it — carry debatable impact. Both states have moved slowly but steadily in recent days to issue same-sex marriage licenses and to adopt regulations compatible with that right.
But the conflicting announcements reflect the still-unsettled political climate surrounding the issue and the perceived political advantage from supporting or opposing it. In a CNN poll taken after the ruling, 59 percent of those surveyed supported the decision, while 39 percent opposed it.
Only 2 percent had no opinion.
The Kansas and Missouri orders also suggest coming challenges in merging family law into the reality of same-sex families. Adoption, taxation, divorce and child custody, visitation, grandparents’ rights, pensions and other work benefits — all must now be understood through the prism of legal same-sex marriage and its implications for broader discrimination laws.
Some believe Brownback’s order could affect adoption services in Kansas, for example. It also applies to political subdivisions, and could provoke a long series of legal battles over its application.
“All of that stuff is going to play out in courtrooms … all across our state,” Nixon predicted Tuesday.
The Democrat signed his executive order in Kansas City, with several same-sex couples and advocates looking on. It directs “all departments, agencies, boards and commissions in the executive branch to take all necessary measures to ensure compliance” with the ruling. That should expand at least some access to benefits, name-changes and other rights routinely exercised by heterosexual couples who marry.
The court’s decision “fundamentally changes the discussion” regarding same-sex rights in the state, Nixon said.
Not everyone thinks that discussion is over, however. Pastor LeRoy Glover of the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ stood up at the end of Nixon’s news conference at the Jackson County Courthouse to discuss his religious objections to the practice.
“We just can’t do that,” he told gays and lesbians in the audience. “It’s not that I hate you. I don’t. But I do have to honor and obey my God.”
Nixon said he understood the concern, but that religious practices weren’t the primary focus of his order. “This is about making sure the people’s rights are protected,” he said.
Yet the interplay of religious and marriage rights was precisely the issue for Brownback in Kansas.
His order, released shortly after Nixon’s news conference was underway, bars state government from pursuing legal action against clergy or any religious organization “that chooses not to participate in a marriage that is inconsistent with its sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman.”
In its ruling, the Supreme Court said religions “may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. … The Constitution, however, does not permit the State to bar same-sex couples from marriage.”
Micah Kubic of the Kansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union called the order “unnecessary and harmful.”
In a statement, Brownback repeated his disappointment with the court’s ruling. At the same time, though, the Republican said “it is important that all Kansans be treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.”
Indeed, there was some evidence Monday and Tuesday that Kansas’ reluctance to embrace the specific ruling is fading. The state began issuing driver’s licenses with married names for same-sex couples Monday, and same-sex married couples working for the state began applying for health benefits this week.
“With more of a whimper than a bang, the state of Kansas is coming into line,” said Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, a group that has pressed for the expansion of same-sex rights in the state.
At the same time, Witt emphasized, the push for those rights isn’t limited to marriage and related issues. In Kansas, as in Missouri, advocates for gays and lesbians say they must still pursue broad discrimination protections in employment and other areas.
Nixon used his news conference to urge passage of such legislation in Missouri.
“Individuals can still be fired for being gay,” he said. “That’s wrong. That’s not who we are.”
A bill to enact those protections made it out of a Missouri Senate committee this year, but the legislation did not advance further.