Samantha Brookover and Amanda Abramovich had already done the most important part — a September 2014 ceremony, surrounded by family and friends in rural West Virginia, where they vowed to spend the rest of their lives together.
But weeks later, when the state’s Democratic governor announced that an appeals court ruling made same-sex marriage legal, Brookover and Abramovich were at the tiny Gilmer County courthouse to get their marriage certificate.
“Yes, this was essentially a piece of paper, but at the same time it was the most exciting piece of paper we could ever get,” Brookover told The Washington Post.
But things soured shortly after they entered the courthouse. At first, Brookover said, they were turned away because a deputy clerk wrongly told them they couldn’t get a marriage certificate without a driver’s license.
That information was wrong, Brookover said — but they didn’t know it then. “Whenever she turned us away, it was like, okay, we don’t necessarily know every rule,” she said. “We trusted in her to give us the right information.”
It took them 16 months to return to the Gilmer County courthouse. By then, the Supreme Court had agreed with the appellate court ruling, making same-sex marriage legal across the country.
But the couple says they were treated far worse when they returned on Feb. 3, 2016, according to a federal lawsuit the two women filed on Monday against Gilmer County and two officials in the county clerk’s office.
The same official they dealt with the first time — Deputy Clerk Debbie Allen — was behind the desk again that day in 2016 and “launched into a tirade of harassment and disparagement,” the suit claims. She busied herself with processing the paperwork but gave the couple a mouthful while she did it, slamming papers on her desk, screaming that the couple was an “abomination” and that God would “deal with them,’” the court filing says.
The tirade was happening in a public place and in front of Brookover’s mother, stepfather and 3-year-old niece, who had come to show support on what was supposed to be a joyous day, Brookover told The Post.
Allen was asked to stop her diatribe, according to the lawsuit, but the deputy clerk “responded that it was her religious right to say what she wanted, as long as she issued the license,” and that she had to get her feelings off her chest.
Brookover said she cried during the encounter. Her new wife’s hands shook as she signed the forms.
Before they left the courthouse, according to the lawsuit, Allen issued a parting shot: “Allen told Amanda and Samantha that officials in Gilmer County had stopped performing marriages after the court had become legally required to recognize same-sex marriages and that no one in Gilmer County would marry the couple.”
Brookover’s mother called Allen’s boss, Jean Butcher — the Gilmer County clerk, who is also named in the lawsuit — but was told “that her staff did nothing wrong and that the next couple would get the same or worse,” according to the court documents.
Neither Butcher nor Allen responded to email or phone messages left at the clerk’s office for this article.
When questioned by the Charleston Gazette-Mail about the incident, a week after it happened, Allen described how she “briefly and calmly told the couple what they were doing was wrong and that God would judge them, and then continued helping them, as she would other couples,” the newspaper reported.
Butcher told the Gazette-Mail that she informed Brookover’s mother by phone that her views were similar to Allen’s. Still, Butcher said in 2016, Brookover and Abramovich “were issued the license, and that was the main thing.”
But the now-married couple remember it differently.
“Instead of the happiest day of our lives, we will forever remember our wedding day as one filled with fear, tears and humiliation,” they wrote in a blog post for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, whose attorneys are representing them.
“This should never have happened to us,” the couple wrote.
In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry, superseding earlier rulings and igniting a spike in same-sex marriages in states where they had been illegal.
On a practical level, that meant officials personally opposed to same-sex marriage were suddenly professionally obligated to help gays and lesbians get married. Most followed the law, as The Post reported.
But some county clerks resigned. Others violated the law by refusing to issue the certificates to same-sex couples — and argued that their First Amendment right to freedom of religion entitled them to that stance.
Kim Davis, an Apostolic Christian and the clerk of court in Rowan County, Ky., was jailed by a judge after refusing to give out marriage licenses following the ruling.
“It wasn’t just a spur-of-the-moment decision,” Davis told a federal judge, according to NPR. “It was thought out, and I sought God on it.”
The state has since taken the names of clerks off the marriage license forms to remedy concerns that they’re endorsing same-sex marriage.
In Texas, legislators are currently mulling a bill that would let county judges and other elected officials recuse themselves if they have a religious objection to issuing marriage licenses.
In West Virginia, where there were no regulations until April 2016, Brookover and Abramovich say they learned that the assistant county clerk’s diatribe wasn’t a statement made in the heat of passion, either.
“On learning that West Virginia would now for the first time be required to issue marriage license to same-sex couples, told fellow government employees in the county courthouse that, if any same-sex couple requested a marriage license from her, she would humiliate the couple and refused to issue a license to them,” their lawsuit claims.
Brookover said Butcher made a similar statement to her mother, Jill Goff.
“Further, Butcher told fellow county employees that she would stand by and vouch for her deputy clerks if they harassed, humiliated or denigrated or refused to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple.”
Richard B. Katskee, the legal director at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said such discrimination is reminiscent of Jim Crow-era policies that made it difficult for black people to vote. That’s part of the reason Abramovich and Brookover decided to sue, with the support of Americans United, a national organization whose members “share a common commitment to church-state separation and individual freedom,” according to its website.
“It’s important for these officials to understand that what they did caused real harm,” Katskee told The Post. “It’s important to have a deterrent for the future. The last thing in the world that they wanted was to be pursuing a cause. They just wanted to get married.”
Katskee said the couple is seeking punitive damages, although West Virginia law doesn’t allow them to name an amount in the lawsuit.
Growing up in a conservative small town in West Virginia, Brookover said she and her wife had been quiet about their relationship before their marriage. Sometimes, people who found out gave them weird looks or treated them differently, she said.
Only 37 percent of West Virginians were in favor of same-sex marriage, according to a poll by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute. The poll was released shortly before the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal across the country. Nationally, 54 percent of people were in favor.
Brookover noted that she Abramovich weren’t expecting the clerk of court to respect their beliefs. They simply expected her to do her job.
“We don’t go around flaunting it in front of everyone; we weren’t being like ‘we’re here, and we’re going to be gay whether you like it or not,’ ” Brookover told The Post. “We know everybody has their difference of opinion, but it’s not a matter of your opinion as much as it is doing your job.”
She said she takes solace in the memories of her commitment ceremony, among loved ones in a setting filled with decorations they had picked out together.
“It was perfect,” she said of the ceremony. “I don’t want to forget that day being so happy because it’s crowded out by the legal day. But sometimes I can’t help it. It’s hard to drive by the courthouse. It’s hard to just deal with it. I feel like I was robbed of being a human on that day.”
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