Same Sex Marriage: County Officials Mulling Future of Courthouse Weddings

Feb 12, 2015

The Christian County "Love Chapel"
Credit Allison Crawford

As Alabama becomes the most recent state to issue same sex marriages, some lawmakers there are decrying a federal judge’s decision to strike down the ban and the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to intervene. Kentucky, another largely conservative state, may receive a final decision on its gay marriage ban this summer. The impending decision has some public officials reexamining their role as marriage officiants.

An obviously in love couple stands in front of Judge Executive Steve Tribble at the Christian County Courthouse. Lindsey Schneider and Calvin Kendall, like many from Fort Campbell, come here for their nuptials in a three minute ceremony.

“Marriage is an institution of divine appointment and is commended as an honor among all men. It’s a most important step in life and it shouldn’t be entered into unadvisedly and it shouldn’t be taken lightly,” Tribble states, presiding over the wedding.

Christian County Judge/Executive Steve Tribble in the building reserved for court house marriages, known as the "Love Chapel."
Credit Allison Crawford

Kentucky County Judge/Executives can solemnize weddings and authorize commissioners and magistrates with the same authority, but marrying people is not a requirement of their position. So the decision on whether to perform marriages is left up to preference.

“I was at the soap box derby banquet this year and I was just walking through saying hi to folks and this couple says ‘Do you remember us judge?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m not sure.’ And they said, ‘Judge, you married us about 20 years ago and said, this is our family here.' And that made me feel wonderful,” Tribble said. “But that happens all the time. But yeah, I just think… I like it.”

Tribble holds the moniker of the “Love Judge,” proudly stating he’s officiated nearly 9,000 weddings in his 21 years as a county official. But his legacy could be challenged if the Supreme Court strikes down Kentucky’s gay marriage ban.

“That’d probably be big news if the Love Judge went out of business, huh?” Tribble said.

When Florida’s gay marriage ban was struck down, media reported several county clerks, while legally compelled to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples, stopped offering courthouse weddings all together.

Judge Tribble said he’ll decide whether or not to marry same sex couples when the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage comes down, but he believes all people should be treated equally.

“I couldn’t choose to not do a gay wedding and do a straight wedding,” Tribble said. “That’s discrimination in my mind. I mean, that’s a no brainer," Tribble asserted. "And so, you know, if you’re hearing that some of the judges in West Kentucky are no longer doing them, that may be what they’re thinking.”

Deliberating on gay marriage isn’t the first time the U.S. Supreme Court has been concerned with matrimony. The high court struck down interracial marriage bans across the nation in 1967. But that controversial decision didn’t cause as much local upheaval. A 1968 gallup poll showed 73 percent of Americans disapproved of interracial marriage. A 2014 gallup poll shows that just 42 percent of Americans oppose same sex marriage. However, the public debate has been very noisy.

“We’re not really asking anything more than just for the state to actually recognize us as one instead of two singles living together,” said Murray State University exercise science professor Jason Jaggers.

I couldn't choose to not do a gay wedding and do a straight wedding. That's discrimination in my mind. I mean, that's a no brainer. - Steve Tribble

 Jaggers and his partner Jeff have been together for 15 years. He says all that really matters is the state recognize the validity of their union and give them the same benefits afforded heterosexual couples. Jaggers says if judges aren’t legally required to solemnize weddings, then it’s okay if they decide not to marry same sex couples, so long as there is someone else at the courthouse to perform gay marriages.

Jaggers understands the strong religious beliefs many public officials hold that keep them from accepting gay marriage but he says those inclinations have no place in public office.  

“No matter what progress we make, they always try to find these little loopholes or ways around that, to continuously holding down our rights, treating us like second class citizens and think that, that that’s okay,” Jaggers said. “It makes no sense to me.”

Though “Love Judge” Tribble is undecided on the issue, other judge/executives know their stance. In Hopkins County, Donald Carroll says he would probably stop marrying people if the gay marriage ban is lifted. In Lyon County, Wade White said he might continue to marry all but same sex couples on the grounds of religious opposition. Jesse Perry and Bob Leeper in Graves County and McCracken County do not perform marriages. And Larry Elkins of Calloway County stopped doing marriages last summer because he says they were too time-consuming.  

Executive Director of the Kentucky County Judge/Executive Association Vince Lang says he doesn’t know of any law addressing discrimination when it comes to who public officials choose to marry.

“There could be litigation. There’s always the temptation for certain people to go to court to get what they think is a just decision. It may be that the statutes get broadened or narrowed through time,” Lang said.

The Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling on gay marriage this summer.