Paxton: State Workers Can Deny Licenses to Same-Sex Couples

Texas' conservative Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton called the Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry a "lawless ruling" and said state workers can cite their religious objections in denying marriage licenses.

He warned in a statement Sunday that any clerk, justice of the peace or other administrator who declines to issue a license to a same-sex couple could face litigation or a fine.

But in the nonbinding legal opinion requested by Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Paxton said "numerous lawyers" stand ready to defend, free of charge, any public official refusing to grant one.

In its 5-4 opinion Friday, the Supreme Court did nothing to eliminate rights of religious liberty, Paxton's opinion states.

"This newly minted federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage can and should peaceably coexist with long-standing constitutional and statutory rights, including the rights to free exercise of religion and freedom of speech," the AG wrote.

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick issued the following statement Sunday:

“On Thursday I made a request to Attorney General Ken Paxton for a legal opinion on how local elected officials would be impacted if the Supreme Court ruled gay marriage the law of the land. Today, I commend Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for his quick and comprehensive opinion on the very important issue regarding protecting public employees’ rights. As I had hoped when I requested this opinion, General Paxton has affirmed that county clerks, judges and Justices of the Peace do in fact retain religious freedom to object.

“No public employee, judge or Justice of the Peace should be forced to participate in activity contrary to the covenants of their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

While many Republicans have said they disagreed with the Supreme Court ruling, officials in most states have said that they will abide by it. Paxton's comments echoed those Friday of Gov. Greg Abbott, who said Texans can't be forced by the court ruling to act contrary to their religious beliefs.

"Despite the Supreme Court's rulings, Texans' fundamental right to religious liberty remains protected," Abbott said Friday.

In his two-page memo, Abbott ordered agency leaders that no one in their ranks could take "adverse action" against someone acting on their religious beliefs, including "granting or denying benefits." That led to early confusion and questions over whether state agencies might deny health or retirement benefits to the spouses of gay employees.

Abbott spokesman John Wittman later issued a clarifying statement Friday, saying the directive doesn't order the denial of benefits to same-sex couples. He said it only "ensures that individuals doing business with the state cannot be discriminated against because of their religious beliefs."

Paxton in his statement Sunday said the justices "weakened the rule of law" and "fabricated a new constitutional right."

"I am stunned by it," said Rafael McDonnell of the Dallas LGBT Resource Center. "This ruling was issued on a Sunday afternoon simply to muddy the water an cause chaos. It is going to empower rogue clerks to essentially not do the jobs they were hired to do."

Texas was not part of the case before the Supreme Court. A federal judge in 2013 ruled that the state's ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional but declined to enforce the ruling while it was on appeal. Since Friday's ruling, a federal district court in Texas has prohibited Texas from enforcing state laws that define marriage as exclusively a union between one man and one woman.

"I would hope this doesn't discourage someone from going out and getting that marriage license. They may have to shop around, and that is regrettable and unconscionable, but don't let it stop you," McDonnell said.

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Ken Paxton Opinion (Text)

NBC 5's Jocelyn Lockwood contributed to this report.

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