While a lot of justices of the peace across the state are wondering just what their obligations are under the high court ruling allowing same-sex marriages, one filed her paperwork and quit Tuesday rather than perform a wedding ceremony for a gay couple.
“It was pretty black and white for me. I wasn’t going to wait for the states to sort it out,” Patricia Gunter, of Pollock, said in an interview Tuesday. She resigned as justice of the peace for District D in Grant Parish, which is in central Louisiana.
“I can’t uphold the oath that I swore, which states that I will uphold the laws of this state and of the country,” Gunter said.
Same-sex marriage is now the law of the land and eventually, be it a month or a year when the legalities are sorted out, gay marriages will be conducted, and those who refuse would be subjected to ethics complaints and targets for litigation, she said. “We just decided that it was best for me to get out of the line of fire when it comes, and it is coming,” she said.
Balancing personal beliefs and job requirements is a conversation many justices of the peace are having among themselves and with the Louisiana Justice of the Peace and Constable Association, said Connie Moore, who heads the group.
They don’t need to be lawyers, and the elected job is part-time. They conduct marriages, authorize evictions and arbitrate disputes valued at less than $5,000. The justices of the peace — there are 390 of them in Louisiana — can keep half of the filing fees.
Moore said she’s been getting a lot of questions since Friday, when the U.S. Supreme Court found in Obergefell v. Hodges that the Constitution allows for the right to same-sex marriage. Some JPs flatly refuse to do it, while some are wondering how little they can get away with, and others are asking how to fill out the forms now.
The state Attorney General’s Office is advising justices of the peace to conduct marriage ceremonies, Moore said. The AG’s Office is “telling them: It’s their job. They are expected to do their job. It could be an ethics violation, if they don’t. … They may have a problem with the Judiciary Commission,” said Moore, the Ward 3 justice of the peace in Covington.
Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s press office released a statement late Tuesday saying the office’s legal advice is confidential.
The Louisiana Supreme Court, which oversees the judicial disciplinary Judiciary Commission, did not respond Tuesday to three queries.
Gov. Bobby Jindal and his legal team, however, are advising officials, including justices of the peace, that they don’t have to perform ceremonies or issue licenses or do other work they feel compromises their religious faith.
This is not the first time the marital duties of Louisiana justices of the peace attracted attention.
In 2009, Keith Bardwell, of Tangipahoa Parish, refused to marry interracial couples. Jindal, at the time, called for Bardwell’s resignation and asked the Judiciary Commission to review the case.
St. James Parish Justice of the Peace Trina J. Moll said she would be seeking a clarification from the state Attorney General’s Office, but noted that parish clerks of court are already issuing licenses for marriages that same-sex couples could be asking justices like her to officiate.
“At this point, we’re just between a rock and a hard place, but, like I said, I will do my job,” Moll said Tuesday. “Sometimes you just have put some of your personal feelings to the side and do what you have to do.”
Ward 2 Justice Kermit Guidry, of Duson, said because the ruling is against his Catholic beliefs, he will not perform ceremonies for same-sex couples — although he would still sign the paperwork making a same-sex couple’s marriage official.
“I would marry them, but without a ceremony,” Guidry said, adding that no couples had contacted him to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony.
Also Catholic, Ward 4 Justice Lynwood Broussard, of Youngsville, said his religious beliefs are separate from the oath he took as a public servant to uphold state and federal laws. “I don’t mix religion with my ceremony. It’s strictly a civil ceremony,” he said. He performed his first same-sex wedding ceremony around 1 p.m. on Tuesday.
Justice of the Peace Mary Rodrigue Walker, of Gramercy, said the topic came up earlier this year during a Louisiana Justice of the Peace and Constables Association training convention. Officials were warned they would have to perform the ceremonies should they become legal.
“We are not performing religious ceremonies, so we cannot turn it down due to that fact,” Walker said the justices of the peace were told.
Moses Evans Jr., a justice of the peace in north Baton Rouge who is available to perform weddings 24 hours a day, seven days a week, charges $75 for weddings held during the day and $100 on nights and weekends.
He officiated a same-sex marriage Monday night, and his phone has been “ringing off the hook” since news broke that his home parish was issuing marriage licenses to gays, he said.
Evans said he’s received criticism from some members of his family for involving himself in gay weddings, but he said they ought to “look in the mirror” before casting blame.
Over in West Baton Rouge Parish, Justice of the Peace James “Jimmy” Womack, who identified himself as a pastor, said “I’d rather not get into the middle of that.”
His counterpart James Ducote said “it’s too new to know” whether he’ll be made to perform same-sex weddings, adding, “I probably will have to.”
Livingston Justice Rita Stewart said she hadn’t received any instructions from the Attorney General’s Office, but that she felt it was her legal obligation to perform same-sex marriages. “It is my job,” she said.
Advocate staff writers Lanie Cook, Steve Hardy, Heidi Kinchen, Maya Lau and David Mitchell contributed to this report. Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.