Politics & Government

Gay marriage in Texas: a one-year anniversary

After Victor Lopez (left) and Michael Zeigler (right), partners for twenty years, were married, they held a sign signifying their union as well as the day. After the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling, supporters of gay marriage met Friday, June 26, 2015, at Celebration Community Church in Fort Worth.
After Victor Lopez (left) and Michael Zeigler (right), partners for twenty years, were married, they held a sign signifying their union as well as the day. After the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling, supporters of gay marriage met Friday, June 26, 2015, at Celebration Community Church in Fort Worth. Star-Telegram

Michael Zeigler will never forget the moment.

Standing in Celebration Community Church, in front of a crowd of hundreds, he took vows to finally marry the love of his life on their 20th anniversary.

It was June 26, 2015, the day the Supreme Court swept away bans on same-sex marriage.

By nightfall, Zeigler and Victor Lopez had become the first same-sex couple legally married in Tarrant County.

“Who knew when we woke up that morning that we would be getting married before hundreds of strangers that night?” Zeigler asked. “It was literally the most amazing experience.”

One year later, countless other same-sex couples have followed in their footsteps.

There are no estimates on how many couples in Texas or across the country have exchanged vows, since gender is no longer listed on marriage licenses. But more than 600 same-sex couples in Tarrant County have married in the past year, a Star-Telegram review shows.

The public outcry that immediately followed the court ruling — by conservative leaders frustrated at the sudden end to long-standing same-sex marriage bans in states such as Texas — has died down for some.

But not for others.

Some county clerks still refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, although other staff in the office is “available and ready” to do so.

Some Texas lawmakers next year hope to pass legislation protecting business owners, from florists to bakers, letting them turn down jobs for same-sex marriages for religious reasons.

And some conservative leaders say the fight to preserve religious liberties is not close to being over.

“As a result of the marriage ruling a year ago, we’ve seen increased attacks on religious freedom, new threats to privacy and safety of women and children, and more abuse of executive and administrative action by the federal government,” said Jonathan Saenz, president of Austin-based Texas Values, which opposes same-sex marriage.

“No one should have to abandon their faith in order to do their job or provide charitable help for others in need.”

Zeigler, 48, and Lopez, 45, say they don’t want to impact other people’s lives.

They just want to enjoy theirs.

“I wouldn’t want anything to change,” Lopez said of his married life with Zeigler. “We are grateful for what we do have.”

Marriage licenses

There is no exact accounting of how many same-sex marriage licenses have been issued in Texas or Tarrant County because gender is no longer listed on licenses.

State officials initially monitored the number of licenses believed to be issued to same-sex couples — about 2,500 in the first two months after the Supreme Court’s ruling. But they no longer track that data, said Chris Van Deusen, spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

To get an idea of how many marriage licenses Tarrant County has granted to same-sex couples, the Star-Telegram reviewed a list of 14,585 applications between June 26, 2015, and June 1, 2016.

638 At least the number of marriage licenses issued in the past year to same-sex couples in Tarrant County

The review shows that at least 638 licenses appear to have been issued to local same-sex couples.

These were issued to couples with the first names of Carlos and Nicolas, for instance, or Stephen and Joe, Susan and Virginia, Carrie and Crystal, Michael and Glen.

“Nothing to report other than business as usual across the department,” said Jeff Nicholson, chief deputy for Tarrant County Clerk Mary Louise Garcia, when asked for information about the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses.

Locally, the first same-sex license was issued to Tracey Knight, a Fort Worth police corporal who served as the LGBT community liaison, and her wife, Shannon. The couple wed three years ago in California but wanted to exchange vows again in Texas.

Common law

Caren Ruth Woolridge and Phoebe DeSantis, who have a 5-year-old son together, chose a different route.

Instead of seeking a marriage license, they opted for a common law marriage license showing they’ve been together since March 1, 2009.

This was the best option for them right now because it lets them show the length of their union — and amend past tax returns, filing as a married couple, which should bring them a refund.

That money is needed for medical bills for Woolridge, who was first treated for cancer in 2013 and saw a recurrence last year.

In the past month, tests show the “tumor is still shrinking” and she’s regaining strength daily, Woolridge said.

“We just decided that common law was what we wanted to do,” she said. “We are still holding out for the legal marriage and ceremony for when my health and our finances settle out.

We want a wedding and reception We just want everything to settle down so we can afford the whole dream.

Caren Ruth Woolridge, whose relationship with Phoebe DeSantis was deemed a common law marriage this past year

“We want a wedding and reception. We just want everything to settle down so we can afford the whole dream.”

Woolridge said life hasn’t dramatically changed for her family since the court ruling.

But the knowledge that she and DeSantis are legally married brings them a sense of peace.

“It’s the ability to say, ‘This is my wife,’ and know that it’s true,” Woolridge said. “It has been an equaling.”

Religious objections

Shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision, a number of county clerk offices across the state and country declared they wouldn’t issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Texas’ Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a nonbinding legal opinion saying officials could deny marriage licenses if they had religious objections. He did note that any clerk who didn’t issue licenses could face fines or lawsuits, but he also said lawyers were ready to represent clerks “defending their religious beliefs.”

Texas must speak with one voice against this lawlessness, and act on multiple levels to further protect religious liberties for all Texans.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement after the Supreme Court ruling last year

“Texas must speak with one voice against this lawlessness, and act on multiple levels to further protect religious liberties for all Texans,” he said in a statement.

Paxton’s ruling came at the request of an opinion by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who praised the AG for affirming “that county clerks, judges and Justices of the Peace do in fact retain religious freedom to object.”

One year later, a message from Hood County Clerk Katie Lang remains on the county’s website stating that she still won’t issue same-sex marriage licenses. But she guarantees that someone in her office will.

She drew national attention last year after refusing to issue these licenses, prompting a Granbury couple to sue to get their marriage license there. The lawsuit was settled, costing Hood County more than $43,000 in legal fees, and the couple, Jim Cato and Joe Stapleton, received their marriage license.

“The freedom to marry has taken root deep in the heart of Texas, and lots of families are happier,” said Evan Wolfson of the Freedom to Marry group, which disbanded in recent months.

“Now if the governor and lieutenant governor would stop trying to undermine people’s rights and freedoms and just let all families thrive, Texans would be a lot better off.”

Republican reaction

Texans have long opposed in gay marriage.

In 2003, state lawmakers banned it, and in 2005, voters chose to add that ban to the state’s constitution, stipulating that marriage is a union of one man and one woman.

The Supreme Court’s ruling did away with those bans, opening the door to same-sex marriage throughout the country.

“Despite the Supreme Court’s rulings, Texans’ fundamental right to religious liberty remains protected,” Gov. Greg Abbott said last year. “No Texan is required by the Supreme Court’s decision to act contrary to his or her religious beliefs regarding marriage.”

In the waning hours of the last Texas legislative session, which ended before the Supreme Court ruling, a plan geared to prevent state and local officials from issuing same-sex marriage licenses — by stripping the salaries of workers who issued or honored the licenses — was among the measures that died.

Lawmakers did pass the Pastor Protection Act, which lets religious officials refuse to conduct wedding ceremonies that go against their beliefs. That went into effect last June.

“I will continue to defend the religious liberties of all Texans — including those whose conscience dictates that marriage is only the union of one many and one woman,” Abbott said last year.

Some state lawmakers are getting ready for the 85th Legislative Session, which begins in January.

“We probably will want to pass some more protection measures,” said state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington.

The goal, he said, would be to prevent people who have a “biblical view of marriage … from being forced to be involved in a marriage ceremony for a same-sex couple.”

Such legislation could be considered to protect people so they wouldn’t “be forced to violate their Freedom of Conscience,” Zedler said.

State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, said there’s much work to be done to determine what proposals should be presented to the Legislature next year.

“But I think there’s definitely a lot of interest in looking at areas where we still have questions and concerns,” he said. “We want to look at where religious liberty plays into it and how we strengthen religious liberty in certain situations.”

Happily ever after?

After an extraordinary start to their marriage, the routine of daily life has been pretty regular for Zeigler and Lopez.

But about a month after getting married, the two realized that they did feel a little different.

“We felt like it was permanent,” Lopez said. “It was a good feeling.”

They held a reception about three months after getting married so family and friends could celebrate their union.

They now marvel that they were able to get a marriage license, a waiver setting aside the 72-hour waiting period and actually get married in less than 12 hours.

“It all fell into place,” Zeigler said. “It was like it was meant to be.”

One year later, they are still happily married.

They have their jobs and also own and operate the Basement Lounge, a small bar on Camp Bowie Boulevard in Fort Worth.

In the wake of the Orlando shooting at a gay bar, they were reminded of a text Zeigler’s father sent when they were getting ready to exchange vows last year.

The text said: “I’m happy for you and Victor. But I want you to be careful, because not everybody will be happy for you.”

Zeigler and Lopez, who are focused on their business and life together, say they don’t take a moment they have together for granted.

I love the life we have. If you give this to me until my last breath, ... I couldn’t ask for anything else.

Michael Zeigler, who celebrates his one-year marriage anniversary with Victor Lopez, on June 26

“I love the life we have,” Zeigler said. “If you give this to me until my last breath … I couldn’t ask for anything else.”

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley