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Texas attorney general calls court's gay marriage decision 'a lawless ruling'

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Eric Gay/AP/File

(Read caption) In this Jan. 5, 2015, file photo, Ken Paxton speaks after he was sworn in as Texas attorney general in Austin, Texas. 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 non-binding legal opinion, Paxton says "numerous lawyers" stand ready to defend, free of charge, any public official refusing to grant one.

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton defended the religious liberty of state employees in a statement Sunday, saying they would not have to issue marriage licenses or perform weddings for same-sex couples and called the Supreme Court’s Friday decision “a lawless ruling.”

While critics see this as short-lived political posturing, some conservatives see it as the start of a state's rights movement against the US high court's decision on gay marriages.

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The court's landmark 5-4 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges declared same-sex marriage a constitutional right, but Attorney General Paxton said in a statement that the ruling “stops at the door of the First Amendment” and cannot touch religious freedom.

He added that lawyers would be made available to anti-same-sex marriage officials who face legal consequences for religiously motivated actions.

“A ruling by the US Supreme Court is considered the law of the land, but a judge-made edict that is not based in the law or the Constitution diminishes faith in our system of government and the rule of law,” Paxton said.

His condemnation of the decision echoes similar remarks by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who said in a statement Friday that no “adverse action” may be taken against state officials acting – or refusing to act – on their religious beliefs.

“Texans of all faiths must be absolutely secure in the knowledge that their religious freedom is beyond the reach of government,” Gov. Abbott said. “Renewing and reinforcing that promise is all the more important in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. The government must never pressure a person to abandon or violate his or her sincerely held religious beliefs regarding a topic such as marriage.”

As The Christian Science Monitor reported, lawmakers in Tennessee are drafting a "Pastor Protection" bill in response to the Supreme Court decisions. And some other Republican states have been dragging their feet on implementing the court's decision.

In Louisiana, officials won’t be granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples just yet, according to LGBTQ Nation. The Louisiana Clerks Association advised clerks to wait until the end of a 25-day period for the high court to consider a rehearing. In 2004, voters approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in the state, which a federal judge upheld last year.

Rebecca Robertson, legal and policy director for the ACLU of Texas said in a statement Friday, following the Supreme Court decision and Abbott’s statement as well as initial remarks made by Paxton, “there is little that Ken Paxton or Greg Abbott can do today to quell the joy of so many Texans celebrating their constitutional right to marry.”

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However, while some counties in Texas immediately began issuing marriage licenses to the crowds of same-sex couples lining up in county clerks’ offices Friday, others held off, The Texas Tribune reported. They were awaiting further notice from Paxton, who anticipated the court ruling by advising county clerks Thursday not to act until he gave them the go-ahead.

Denton County clerk Juli Luke refused to grant any same-sex marriage licenses Friday, according to the Denton Record-Chronicle. She first claimed she was waiting to hear from District Attorney Paul Johnson, then said that computer software updates prevented the office from issuing licenses. Denton County judge Mary Horn also said she would refuse to wed same-sex couples.

In Mississippi, state house judiciary chairman Andy Gipson (R) said the state may remove the marriage license requirement altogether in light of the ruling, according to The Clarion-Ledger.

Paxton’s statement of exemption based on religious belief extends beyond those with the power to issue marriage licenses, reaching judges and justices of the peace in the capacity to officiate weddings.

Ms. Robertson said while the Constitution prevents the curtailment of religious freedom, government officials should still be responsible for carrying out the law.

“Religious liberty is a fundamental right protected by the First Amendment, but that doesn’t mean that government officials can use their personal religious beliefs to avoid following the law regarding marriage,” she said. “Government officials who take an oath to uphold the law are required to treat all Texans equally, regardless of who they are or whom they love.”