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Clerk issues 'declaration' opposing same-sex marriage; county attorneys issue rash of opinions

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DALLAS — A county clerk in West Texas is refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and asks state leaders in a self-described "declaration" to "protect natural marriage from lawless court opinions."

The objection this week by Irion County Clerk Molly Criner to last month's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage nationwide is detailed in a statement she crafted titled "Declaration of obedience to law and defense of natural marriage."

Other county clerks in Texas have expressed concerns about issuing licenses to same-sex couples, some because they have religious objections to such a marriage and others who cite state documents that haven't been updated to include same-gender language. But Criner's opposition, released as part of a broader statement by the Florida-based conservative nonprofit group Liberty Counsel, refers to prior Supreme Court decisions, state resolutions from 1798 and the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. in arguing that marriage "between one man and one woman remains the law in Texas, regardless of any court decision to the contrary."

As of last week there were about 100 counties in Texas that weren't issuing the licenses, but the vast majority said the delay was because clerks were awaiting legal advice, updated paperwork or software, according to The Dallas Morning News. Only a few cited religious objections.

Criner's opposition comes amid a flurry of opinions by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and various county attorneys trying to give direction to county clerks, at least some of whom were uncertain how to act in the wake of the court's June 26 ruling.

"We were the first people to be affected and the last ones to be contacted. No one had our back," Yoakum County Clerk Deborah Rushing said in a statewide email list to other clerks, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

A district attorney in South Texas is among many who recently issued opinions to their county clerks, but his stands out for its occasional use of folksy, blunt language to assess matters.

While Attorney General Paxton has expressed support for clerks who object to issuing same-sex marriage licenses, Victoria County District Attorney Stephen Tyler said Paxton's opinion essentially states that he disagrees with the Supreme Court ruling but Paxton "is not the lifeguard at this pool" so clerks "WILL swim at their own risk."

Tyler later told The Associated Press that Paxton was wrong to say in a statement to the media last week that there are lawyers waiting to counsel, free of charge, clerks who cite religious objections in declining to issue licenses.

"To suggest that someone's going to come out of the woodwork and defend them, that's not going to happen," Tyler said.

Criner did not respond to a call from the AP seeking comment Tuesday, but Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver said Criner has "thought through this scenario probably more than most people have." He said she wants recognition that she can freely exercise her religious beliefs and objects to how the court "shut down debate on such a critical social issue."

"There's the intuitive sense of concern of millions of Americans that the court is deciding these very divisive social issues with a mere majority of one vote," Staver said.

Liberty Counsel will represent Criner should she be the target of a lawsuit, he said.

He did not know if deputy clerks in Irion County are authorized to issue licenses to same-sex couples or if any couples have requested one. The county judge and county attorney did not return calls Tuesday.

The rural county, with a population of about 1,500 people, is southwest of San Angelo.

Chuck Smith, executive director for Equality Texas, an advocacy group that lobbies on behalf of gay and transgender people, said Criner is entitled to her beliefs, but those beliefs can't "interfere with the issuance of a license."

"The office as a whole has to comply with issuing licenses to all eligible couples on demand," Smith said.

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