Case #2075.0

Divided We Stand: Gay Marriage Rulings and Official Disobedience

Publication Date: August 25, 2016
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On June, 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the federal Defense of Marriage Act violated the U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment protection of equal liberty, effectively overturning the law. Pennsylvania, however, banned same-sex marriage. Despite the state law, D. Bruce Hanes, a register of wills in Pennsylvania, agreed to honor a request from two women seeking a same-sex marriage license—an act of official disobedience that immediately threw Hanes under a national spotlight. Citing his oath to uphold both the Pennsylvania and U.S. constitutions and noting that the two were "diametrically opposed" on the issue, Hanes said: "I decided to come down on the right side of history and the law." 

On June 26, 2015—precisely two years later—the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Constitution guaranteed a right to same-sex marriage. The day the ruling was released, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear announced that he had instructed state agencies and county clerks to comply immediately with the court's ruling. Nevertheless, on Monday morning, June 29, Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis refused to issue marriage licenses to any couples—same-sex or heterosexual. Davis said that she decided to deny marriage licenses to all couples because of her religious convictions and said that “Marriage is ordained by God to be a man and a woman.”

Using the context of contemporary same-sex marriage laws, the case explores two sides of the same coin: at a time and in a state where same-sex marriage is illegal, one official decides to defy the law; at a time and in a state where it is legal, another chooses to refuse to obey. The case asks students to consider if and when official disobedience—the refusal by a public official, acting in an official capacity, to follow the law—is justified.

Learning Objective:
How should political actors behave? The question requires consideration of the many and often competing obligations that should guide political actors, particularly when there is disagreement about what is good, just, and legitimate public policy. Those who seek to govern well are inescapably confronted in their professional and personal decisions with questions of value. This case is designed to provoke critical thinking about the moral responsibilities of public actors in a democracy.

Other Details

Case Author:
Laura Winig
Faculty Lead:
Christopher Robichaud
Pages (incl. exhibits):
United States
Funding Source:
Joseph B. Tompkins, Jr. Fund for Case Study and Research