Dalila Ali Rajah
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Ohio Judges Can't Refuse to Wed Same-Sex Couples

Ohio Judges Can't Refuse to Wed Same-Sex Couples

A judge who claimed he had the right to refuse to officiate a wedding for a same-sex couple has heard from Ohio's top court professional conduct board: Oh, no, you don’t.

Toledo Municipal Court Judge C. Allen McConnell, a senior elder at First Church of God, sought the board's opinion last month after making headlines for refusing to marry a lesbian couple.

"A judge who exercises the authority to perform civil marriages may not refuse to perform same-sex marriages while continuing to perform opposite-sex marriages," according to the seven-page opinion by the Supreme Court of Ohio Board of Professional Conduct. The panel issued its ruling Monday, Toledo newspaper The Blade reports.

And as The New Civil Rights Movement notes, just in case Judge McConnell were to decide to not officiate any weddings, the board has an answer for that too:

"A judge may not decline to perform all marriages in order to avoid marrying same-sex couples based on his or her personal, moral, or religious beliefs."

The only option, according to The Blade, would be for a judge to recuse himself from all legal proceedings where sexual orientation was an issue.

“I’m elated that [Judge McConnell] is going to abide by the law and not discriminate against same-sex couples,” Nick Komives, executive director of Equality Toledo, told The Blade.
 
His group had nearly three dozen signatures from members of the Toledo City Council, all three Lucas County Commissioners, other county officials, and state legislators, on a petition asking Judge McConnell to “fulfill the duty of his elected position.” 
 
Phil Burris of Citizens for Community Values said he was pleased the board “didn’t try to tell the judges they must perform ceremonies. They didn’t go that far. Under the First Amendment you have freedom to exercise your religion,” he said. “I think a judge at least has the opportunity now to say, 'I’m not going to marry anyone.’”

Although the judge has not been available for comment, he had previously announced in a statement reported by Toledo TV station WTOL that he would abide by the board's decision. 

"On Monday, July 6, I declined to marry a nontraditional couple during my duties assignment," Judge McConnell said last month. "The declination was based upon my personal and Christian beliefs established over many years. I apologize to the couple for the delay they experienced and wish them the best. The court has implemented a process whereby same-sex marriages will be accommodated. I will continue to perform traditional marriages during my duties assignment."

The couple at the center of the controversy, Carolyn Wilson and her new wife, told WTOL they specifically sought out a civil official to solemnize their marriage rather than a religious officiant.

"We took great precaution not to offend a minister — that's why we went to a judge to get married, never dreaming that he couldn't follow the law," Wilson told the station. "That he wouldn't follow the law."

Wilson said when they went to court last month, a bailiff from McConnell's courtroom asked to speak to the couple in the hall before they were to be married, telling the women "that Judge McConnell didn't do this type of wedding and we would have to go somewhere else."

"[The bailiff] said he doesn't perform these type of marriages and that was left to interpretation," Wilson said. "We didn't follow up; we made assumptions that it was based on same-sex."

Although another municipal judge stepped in to perform the ceremony, Wilson said McConnell's refusal sullied what she had expected would be a joyous day. The newlyweds turned to local media in hopes that other same-sex couples would not suffer the same "not pleasant" experience. Wilson pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling last month that brought legal marriage equality to all 50 states as proof that "I'm entitled to get married just like anyone else."

Indeed, WTOL notes that existing municipal court rules state that "the duty judge will perform marriage ceremonies between 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. upon payment of the $15 fee to the clerk of court," which Wilson and her partner paid. 

Although the initial motivation for McConnell's refusal was vague, his subsequent statement not only makes clear the religious motivation for his abdication of duty, but also indicates that he plans to continue seeking some sort of "religious exemption" from performing the duties required by his title. 

Click here to read the Ohio Supreme Court's Board of Professional Conduct's decision.

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