By Brandon Wolf
“It was surreal,” says John LaRue, reflecting on the first day that LGBT Houstonians could get marriage licenses from the Harris County Clerk. He had expected some tension in the County Clerk’s office, but imagined that he would be just another bit player in the story. Instead, destiny launched him into an unexpected starring role.
On Friday, June 26, 2015, LaRue and his partner, Hunter Middleton, had been waiting for the Supreme Court decision in the Galleria-area law office where LaRue works. Shortly after 9:00 a.m., the decision became breaking news across the country: marriage equality was now the law of the land.
First Couple to Apply
At 9:30 a.m., the two men headed downtown to the Harris County Clerk’s main office at 201 Caroline. As they arrived on the fourth floor where marriage licenses are issued, they discovered there was no line to get licenses. They were, in fact, the first couple to arrive.
Local media reporters and cameramen were standing around in the large elevator area. The couple walked past them toward the license area at the end of a narrow hallway. As soon as the reporters realized the men were there to apply for a license, they descended on the couple in a swarm.
LaRue and Middleton walked into the office that has seven desks where county clerks meet with marriage license applicants. “The employees looked at us, but no one said a word,” says LaRue. Finally he said, “We’re here to apply for a marriage license.” The office supervisor told him, rather robotically, “We don’t have the right forms yet.” LaRue said they would wait.
For the next half-hour, the media focused all of their attention on LaRue and Middleton, the only couple there. Not only was LaRue the first applicant, but he was an attorney. He held a printed copy of the Supreme Court decision in his hand. Used to speaking in public, he was articulate and knowledgeable. Although Middleton found the situation alien, he responded warmly to reporters’ questions. The two were a perfect media match.
It’s probably safe to assume Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart was watching from inside his office as the couple read quotes from the Court’s decision and puzzled over the apparent lack of a State-issued application form, noting that Harris County was the only major county in Texas that was not issuing licenses.
Stanart finally emerged from his office around 10:00, appearing unruffled as he explained to the media about the “form problem.” He seemed confident that he had explained the situation to everyone’s satisfaction and that the applicants would simply return when the revised form with gender-neutral language was available.
It was no secret to the media that there would be a problem. Stanart was already on record saying that he would not issue licenses until the state’s online marriage application form was revised in Austin by the Bureau of Vital Statistics. That office indicated they would not change the forms until Attorney General Ken Paxton approved the changes.
But Paxton was too busy condemning the Supreme Court’s ruling to be concerned with revising the form. He was also preoccupied with encouraging county clerks to refuse serving LGBT applicants if the employees had religious objections to same-sex marriage. (It would have been more appropriate for Stanart to take his concerns to county attorney Vince Ryan, who is responsible for issuing opinions on legal matters facing the county. But Stanart is a Republican and Ryan is a Democrat, and their positions on marriage equality are at odds.)
LaRue’s Plan B
LaRue and Middleton continued to wait, and the media continued to interview them. One other couple showed up, but left after a short time. At 11:00 a.m., LaRue decided it was time for Plan B. He called Josh Verde, an attorney whom LaRue had retained as counsel. LaRue had asked Verde to prepare to file a lawsuit if indeed Stanart balked.
LaRue had expected his lawsuit to be just one of several coming from groups such as the ACLU and Lambda Legal, but there were no others being filed. When LaRue became aware of a Vince Ryan memo ordering Stanart to start issuing licences using the old forms, LaRue told Verde to wait one hour, and if he hadn’t heard back from LaRue by noon, to proceed with the suit.
The media was eager for a controversy, and kept LaRue up to date on what else was occurring around the state and in Harris county. One reporter had a copy of the Ryan memo and emailed it to LaRue’s smartphone.
LaRue headed back into the license office, followed by the media pack. Once again, he approached a clerk for a license and was rejected. He then read the Ryan memo to the office supervisor from the screen of his phone: “In light of the opinion issued today in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges et al, our opinion is that the law requires you to immediately begin issuing marriage licenses to all qualified applicants without regard to gender.” The supervisor scurried off to find Stanart.
Ryan decided he needed to do something more than just release the memo to the press, and came downstairs to Stanart’s office. First Ryan fielded media questions, then disappeared to talk privately with Stanart. When he reappeared, he offered to hold a press conference in another location in the building. Since Stanart still wasn’t budging, he was preparing to get a court order.
The Lawsuit Is Filed
At noon, Verde e-filed the lawsuit and immediately faxed a copy of it to Stanart, Ryan, Paxton, and county judge Ed Emmet. He then took the lawsuit to the ancillary “on call” judge of the day.
Included in the lawsuit was a request for a temporary restraining order against Stanart, and a writ ordering him to start issuing licenses. The lawsuit made clear that Stanart was being sued both personally and in his capacity as county clerk.
Houston news stations were headlining their midday news with “Problems at the Clerk’s Office” stories. The major networks, keeping tabs on where resistance to issuing licenses was occurring around the country, included Houston in their reports. The news broadcasts noted that all other major Texas counties were using their own version of revised State forms. Only Houston was holding out for an “official” revised version.
For all practical purposes, Stanart was trapped—perhaps envisioning his next re-election campaign and a conservative opponent’s charges that he had caved in on gay marriage.
By this time, the number of couples waiting in line had grown to around 15, most of whom showed up during the lunch hour. LaRue says they chatted amongst themselves, some telling stories of their commitment services and domestic partnership arrangements in other states during the previous era of the marriage equality battle.
At 2:00 p.m, Stanart reappeared and told the media that he would be ready to start issuing licenses at 3:00. Meanwhile, Verde continued to wait his turn in the ancillary courtroom, in case Stanart didn’t follow through.
Only Stanart knows what happened between noon and his 2:00 pm announcement. But he appeared to have been unmoved by Ryan’s memo and visit, and was aware Ryan was going to up the pressure with a court order. The one component in the whole piece that changed during those two hours was the arrival of LaRue’s fax informing Stanart that he was being sued and that an attorney was now sitting in the ancillary judge’s courtroom waiting to get a court order. It was the last thing he needed that day, and the timing of his 2:00 announcement makes one wonder what broke his will.
District Judge Kyle Carter, a Democrat, came down from his courtroom at 2:15 to tell the couples that he would waive the required 72-hour waiting period and officiate their weddings as soon as they had their licenses. A huge cheer went up in the hallway.
At 2:45, an employee from the license office emerged and asked the same-sex couples to line up. She put LaRue and Middleton at the beginning of the line and explained what they needed—IDs, the completed application form, and the $72 license fee.
LaRue then advised all the couples to proceed in to apply, and if they were rejected due to a clerk’s personal objections, to get the name of the clerk who rejected them. All this would be necessary if they ever wanted to file a civil-rights suit against the County Clerk. Happy to have that knowledge, they proceeded in.
Just before 3:00, four straight couples walked to the head of the line, ahead of Middleton and LaRue. When a lesbian who had been waiting told the straight couples that “the line forms at the rear,” the couples explained they had been instructed to go to the front of the line, but quickly gave up their positions.
After LaRue and Middleton had been rejected earlier in the day, the office wisely stopped issuing all licenses in order to avoid a civil-rights suit based on equal protection. LaRue says he assumes the straight couples were assigned to the front of the line so that they wouldn’t be caught up in the media assault that was about to occur.
Marriage Equality Comes to Houston
At 3:00 p.m., the first seven couples were allowed into the license office. LaRue and Middleton received the first same-sex license issued in Harris County as media cameras recorded the historic event. For Maria Dagen, the clerk who issued the license, it was a special moment—her daughter is gay and had been married in another state.
LaRue and Middleton had decided to wait and have a church wedding, but they wished the other couples good luck as some ran to the elevators to head to Carter’s courtroom. District Judge Mike Engelhart and Justice of the Peace Dale Gorczynski (Christina Gorczynski’s father, and a former Houston City Council member) had also come down from their offices to offer their services to the couples. The first same-sex couple to be married in Harris County was Kevin Hayes and Steve Lloyd. LaRue admits that watching a videotape of their ceremony still makes him teary.
Tired, stressed, and hungry, LaRue and Middleton headed off to 1308 Cantina on Montrose Blvd. Later that night came the reward for their efforts that day—a news clip of them featured on The Rachel Maddow Show. “A liberal’s dream,” says LaRue, “is appearing on her show.”
The next day, the couple rose at sunrise and headed off to work on a Pride parade float sponsored by Integrity, the local LGBT Episcopal group. Five days later, the national Episcopal Church (LaRue and Middleton’s denomination) announced that their churches are now open to gay couples for weddings.
Meanwhile, LaRue’s lawsuit still remains on hold. “I’m not withdrawing that,” says LaRue, “until I am holding my marriage certificate and the ink is dry.”
As for his part in the dramatic events of June 26, Verde is proud to have been involved, and feels that he fulfilled his oath as an attorney. “We are supposed to advocate for people who need advocates when others try to skirt the law.”