Indiana District Court Rules Against Clerk Terminated For Refusing To Process Same-Sex Marriage Licenses

After a deputy clerk was terminated for refusing to process marriage license paperwork for a same-sex couple, she sued her employer (Harrison County, Indiana) and her former boss (the County Clerk, Ms. Sally Whitis), alleging the termination was motivated by her need for an accommodation of her sincerely held religious beliefs in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The U.S. District Court, Southern District of Indiana, rejected her claim, however, granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. Summers v. Whitis and Harrison County, 2015 WL 4480650 (S.D. Ind. 2016).

In 2014, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s ruling enjoining the State of Indiana from enforcing its ban on same-sex marriage. Thereafter, Ms. Whitis informed those whose job duties included processing marriage licenses (including the plaintiff, Ms. Linda Summers) of the ruling and the expectation that the employees would begin processing marriage license applications from same-sex couples.

A few weeks later, a same-sex couple requested a marriage license from Ms. Summers. Ms. Summers, who identifies as a Christian, informed Ms. Whitis that she was unable to process the application since it was for a same-sex couple. Ms. Whitis encouraged Ms. Summers to process the application, reminding her she was not marrying the couple, but merely performing an administrative task. Ms. Summers still refused; so, Ms. Whitis processed the marriage license herself.

The next day, Ms. Summers placed a written request for religious accommodation on Ms. Whitis’ desk which stated, “I am respectfully asking that you, my employer, accommodate my sincerely held religious belief by not requiring me to perform the task of processing marriage license for same sex couples [sic].” That same day, Ms. Whitis terminated Ms. Summers for insubordination.

In considering the case, the court looked to cases following the Supreme Court’s ruling in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., 135 S. Ct. 2028 (2015), which have “effectively reduce[d]” a plaintiff’s prima face case in religious accommodation matters to two elements: (1) whether the individual’s religious belief or practice conflicted with an employment requirement; and (2) whether need for an accommodation of that religious belief or practice was a motivating factor in the employer’s adverse employment decision. See, Schwingel v. Elite Prot. & Sec., Ltd., Case No. 11-C-8712 (N.D. Ill. 2015); EEOC v. JetStream Ground Servs., 134 F.Supp.3d 1298, 1318 (D. Colo. 2015).

The court found that, while there arguably was a subjective conflict between Ms. Summer’s religious belief and the employment requirement that she process marriage licenses for same-sex couples, there was no objective conflict. The court reasoned that, just as Ms. Whitis had pointed out, Ms. Summer’s job requirements were merely administrative – she did not perform or solemnize marriage ceremonies. Under the circumstances, the court held Ms. Summers did not have to choose between her job and her religion, stating, “Title VII is not a license for employees to perform only those duties that meet their private approval.”

The court also pointed out that Ms. Summer’s employer did not impose the requirement that Ms. Summers process same-sex marriage licenses; rather, federal law required the employer to process same-sex marriage licenses. Thus, as the court held, “Ms. Summers’ dispute was not with her employer, but with the Seventh Circuit.”

Employers presented with requests for religious accommodation have a legal obligation to consider such requests and determine whether they can be granted without undue hardship to the employer. As the law continues to develop in this area, employers may consider seeking advice from an employment attorney if a matter of accommodating an employee’s religious practices or beliefs arises.

The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters, including those relating to Title VII and religious accommodation, for over sixty years, and are available to discuss these issues and others.  As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.