POLITICS

These Officials In Red States Are Ready For Gay Marriage

06/24/2015 02:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2015

WASHINGTON -- If the U.S. Supreme Court legalizes same-sex marriage nationwide this term, at least one Republican county clerk in Texas will be ready.

Gerard Rickhoff, who oversees marriage licenses in Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, has removed the words "male" and "female" from the licenses. He's prepared extra work stations and is ready to keep the office open late. He's planning to have security on site to deal with protesters, "so there's no possibility of discomfort or hate speech." And if same-sex couples are turned away by clerks in other counties, he has a message for them: "Just get in your car and come on down the highway. You'll be embraced here."

Rickhoff is one of many local bureaucrats and justices around the country who will be expected to enforce a high court ruling on same-sex marriage, which could come down as early as Thursday. The Supreme Court may decide to legalize marriage equality nationwide, which would have major implications for the 13 states where same-sex unions are still banned by law.

Rumblings of civil disobedience have already been heard in some conservative states. When a federal judge struck down Alabama's ban on gay marriage earlier this year, Roy Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, instructed local judges not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Moore also promised that he would defy a high court ruling if it was in favor of marriage equality.

Michigan is home to Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer, lesbian partners who are challenging their state's ban on same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court. Barb Byrum, the clerk for Michigan's Ingham County, said she's heard of officials in her state who would be unwilling to carry out same-sex marriages.

"Our only concern here in Michigan is that Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette has bullied clerks into believing they do not have the authority to issue marriage licenses, regardless of how the court rules," said Byrum. "Some may rely on the partisan AG to give them direction on how to do their job."

Andrea Bitely, a spokesperson for Schuette, told HuffPost that the attorney general has said he "will enforce the decision the Supreme Court makes." She added that "we are looking forward to seeing this resolved as much as everyone else."

Conservative activists are pushing for a civil disobedience campaign to head off marriage equality, and a number of state lawmakers have introduced legislation that aims to protect officiants who refuse to marry gay couples. In Missouri, a Republican state senator went so far as to introduce legislation that would allow the state to fire employees who issue same-sex marriage licenses.

Despite this opposition, other officials in red states say they are making plans to ensure that if the Supreme Court rules in favor of same-sex marriage, the implementation can go smoothly. Sarah Harris, the probate judge in Bibb County, Georgia, said that last summer, local judges got together in her state to discuss the issue.

"We had some pretty frank and forthright discussions," said Harris. "In the smaller counties it will be a big, big political issue for them." But, she said, the judges concluded that they had a responsibility to follow the U.S. Supreme Court and uphold the law.

"We realized we're not going to be Alabama and make a big stand about things," she said.

Officials in Georgia have tweaked the appropriate forms and are prepared for a potential flood of weddings in Atlanta. In Arkansas, Terri Harrison, president of the Arkansas Association of County Clerks, said that clerks have reached out to vendors to get their software altered so they can create gender-neutral licenses. "I haven't heard anyone who has said they will not issue a license," she said.

In Michigan, when a court ruling briefly allowed Byrum to marry same-sex couples last year, her office had to use white-out to cover the words "bride" and "groom" on the official paperwork. Now her office is ready with revised forms.

Rickhoff, the clerk in Texas, said that supporting same-sex marriage is a no-brainer civil rights issue for him, even though the idea isn't popular with Republicans. "I wasn't party to when they wrote that platform," he said. "I was raised by a very loving father and mother who taught me to embrace things and not resist the world."

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