Gilmer County officials must apologize to a same-sex couple, pay them $10,000 and undergo workplace sensitivity training, after a county clerk condemned the couple while they received a marriage license a year and a half ago.
Samantha Brookover and Amanda Abramovich filed the lawsuit against Gilmer County, County Clerk Jean Butcher and Deputy County Clerk Debbie Allen in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia in April. U.S. District Judge Irene M. Keeley dismissed the case with prejudice on Wednesday, after the two parties agreed on a settlement.
On Feb. 3, 2016, Brookover and Abramovich asked for a marriage license in the county clerk’s office. Allen told them what they were doing was wrong and that God would judge them. In a phone interview about a week later, Allen confirmed that she made those remarks, although she disputed allegations that she was loud and used the word “abomination.” Butcher said at the time “[t]hey were issued the license, and that was the main thing.”
The couple’s lawsuit stated that their constitutional rights were violated because they were treated differently from others in the name of religion.
The group Americans United for Separation of Church and State had said, in a news release, that “the county agreed to pay damages.” Attorneys from the organization were among the lawyers representing the couple.
According to a copy of the settlement order, the defendants agreed to pay $10,000 to the couple. Gilmer County also agreed to give them a written apology and post a sign in the clerk’s office stating that the office “does not and will not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identification.” The sign must also include the phone number for Fairness West Virginia, an LGBT rights advocacy organization.
The settlement states that Gilmer County will issue a news release within five days after the settlement order is entered in court.
A public statement from Gilmer County on the Americans United for Separation of Church and State website says that although Abramovich and Brookover received a marriage license, “they were disrespected and disparaged by staff at the County Clerk’s Office because they are a same-sex couple.
“That was wrong,” the statement continues. “It is the policy of Gilmer County and the Gilmer County Clerk’s Office that all people seeking services and doing business with the County will be treated courteously and with respect regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The County Commission and Clerk will take steps to ensure that their employees comply with this policy.”
The statement says that “The Clerk’s Office has apologized to Ms. Brookover and Ms. Abramovich for the way that they were treated, and the County has paid damages in recognition of the harms that they suffered. The County has also agreed to require all officials and employees of the County Commission and County Clerk’s Office to take part in a training program provided by Fairness West Virginia to help ensure that County policy is followed and the mistreatment that Ms. Brookover and Ms. Abramovich received does not recur.”
Brookover called it a “small victory for the LGBT population in general,” but “for West Virginia, it’s huge.” Family support, she said, gave them the strength to pursue the lawsuit.
“We had a chance to stand up and speak for someone who didn’t have a voice,” she said.
The first few weeks after Allen condemned the couple, Brookover’s mom called her every morning, to make sure she got out of bed.
“I guess it was the first time I felt I had been defeated as a human being,” she said. “Her calling me and getting me out of bed was honestly sometimes the only way I was going to get out of bed. But you have to pick yourself back up. It’s one person’s thoughts. Just don’t use your position to belittle somebody.”
The couple bought a house in Braxton County a couple months ago.
“You think you know somebody and then you have to go through a lawsuit with them,” she said. “It made us kind of dig deeper into who each other was.”
Brookover said that at first, Gilmer County officials “felt they were incredibly entitled to what they had to say.”
“Over the year and a half we’ve been doing this, their attitude has changed,” she said.
Butcher directed questions to attorney Wendy Greve, of Charleston-based Pullin, Fowler, Flanagan, Brown & Poe. “You’ll have to talk to her,” Butcher said when asked for a copy of the settlement agreement, which is public record. Greve did not return a call Wednesday.
In a response to the lawsuit, filed July 14, Gilmer County, Allen and Butcher had denied the allegations.
Richard B. Katskee, legal director of Americans United, said in a statement that the organization hoped the couple “can take comfort in knowing that their brave actions to right this wrong should prevent future couples from experiencing what they went through.”
The West Virginia Human Rights Commission had been investigating the case, before Brookover and Abramovich asked to withdraw it.
While both West Virginia’s Human Rights Act and hate crimes code do not explicitly include protections for people based on sexual orientation, Cameron McKinney, counsel for the Human Rights Commission, has said that the Human Rights Commission was pursuing a case involving discrimination against two women. He said that the Human Rights Commission would have pursued the case based on sex discrimination, which is covered in the state’s Human Rights Act. He said they had found the case to be within their jurisdictional reach, and the case was under investigation when the women asked to withdraw the case.
The state Supreme Court ruled in May that former Marshall University football player Steward Butler could not be charged with a hate crime for allegedly attacking two men kissing. Prosecutors had argued that the attack fell under sex discrimination, because he attacked based on his own ideas about how men should behave. Justices said, in an opinion written by Justice Allen Loughry II, that “sex” and “sexual orientation” have distinct meanings and that the state Legislature clearly intended to leave protections based on sexual orientation out of state law.
But McKinney noted that the civil statute — the Human Rights Act — is to be “liberally construed.”