A Toledo judge who declined to officiate at the wedding of two women Monday has apologized to the couple for a 45-minute delay, explaining that his “personal and Christian beliefs” compelled him to ask that another judge step in.
Judge C. Allen McConnell said he was awaiting guidance from the Ohio Supreme Court on whether he may be excused from a rotation of judges handling matrimonial duties at Toledo Municipal Court, but was willing to “continue to perform traditional marriages.”
“I apologize to the couple for the delay they experienced and wish them the best,” Judge McConnell says.
After the court’s judges decided today to resolve the situation by putting only two judges in charge of all civil marriages, however, that guidance appears to have become moot, The Daily Signal has learned.
And in a twist to what some critics suggested was an intolerance to gays and lesbians that interfered with his duty, McConnell, 71, has said the nation’s civil rights struggle inspired him to rise from a coal miner’s son to a lawyer and judge who championed decent housing for all.
The fact that McConnell has been a leader in Toledo’s NAACP, Urban League and Legal Aid Society may surprise his detractors on the marriage question.
>>> For more on religious liberty and same-sex marriage, see Ryan T. Anderson’s new book, “Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom.”
But the dust-up in Toledo is an example of decisions facing court clerks and magistrates from Kentucky to Alabama to Arkansas who say the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage across the nation is in conflict with their sincere religious beliefs.
Carolyn Wilson, 51, and her partner, both of Toledo, applied for a marriage license Monday.
Wilson said they were directed to McConnell, the rotating judge on duty, but his bailiff told them he would not solemnize their marriage.
The situation was “embarrassing” and “put a damper on the day,” Wilson told the Toledo Blade, especially since McConnell didn’t come out to meet her and her partner. (The other woman said she didn’t want to be identified because of her employer.)
Nick Komives, executive director of the LGBT rights group Equality Toledo, had demanded that McConnell not only apologize but “step down” if he won’t conduct same-sex marriages.
“They didn’t deserve to be humiliated; they didn’t deserve to be inconvenienced,” Komives told the Toledo Blade. “That’s just wrong, and we won’t tolerate it. It is his duty to perform this ceremony, and if he’s not willing to perform his duties, he needs to step down.”
“Every American, whether public official or private party, should be able to live and work according to their beliefs.”—@AllianceDefends’ Caleb Dalton
Advocates of religious freedom disagree with such a hard line. They say there are ways to balance the Supreme Court’s finding of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage with the right to religious freedom established as part of America’s founding.
“The ability of the couple to find someone to solemnize their ceremony in 45 minutes illustrates that there is no substantial government interest in forcing this judge to violate his sincerely held beliefs,” Caleb Dalton, a lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom, told The Daily Signal in an interview today.
Dalton, litigation counsel with the Christian legal organization based in Arizona, added:
We have over 200 years of experience of balancing religious beliefs with other important legal and social issues, and every American, whether they’re a public official or a private party, should be able to live and work according to their beliefs. Permitting a judge, a clerk, or any other official to refer a public service to another willing public servant doesn’t infringe on anyone’s rights. And yet forcing people to participate in what they view as an inherently religious ceremony would trample on hundreds of years of Western civilization’s development of freedom and tolerance of diverse views.
McConnell, a Democrat, has come under fire not only from the lesbian couple he declined to join together, but also from regional and national advocates of same-sex marriage.
The judge, however, has a long history of public and community service.
The Daily Signal has learned that McConnell’s civic leadership includes terms as president of both the Toledo branch of the NAACP and the Toledo Legal Aid Society. He has been a member of numerous boards, including the Toledo Greater Urban League, the Frederick Douglass Community Center, and the Flower Hospital Children’s Foundation.
McConnell is the youngest of a West Virginia minister and coal miner’s seven children.
“It was the development of the civil rights movement that sparked my interest in law.” — Judge C. Allen McConnell
After college, he worked as a business teacher and then a financial manager for an oil company in the late 1960s. After getting married, he went back to school and got his law degree in 1972. Inspired by the civil rights movement, he became first a prosecutor and then a lawyer in private practice and fair housing activist in his adopted city of Toledo.
Deciding he could do more good “on the other side of the table,” as McConnell told Toledo Legal News in a 2007 interview, he ran for and won a seat on the city council in 1995. He was elected as a municipal housing judge in 1999 and re-elected in 2005.
“It was the development of the civil rights movement that sparked my interest in law,” the judge told the legal publication, adding:
I protested a little in college, and I realized that someone had to know what the law was and how it operated and what could and could not be done. So as an attorney I knew about a lot of the complaints in the community and I had pursued the city council to change certain things.
An official online biography also notes that as a judge in the municipal court’s Housing and Environmental section, he has “implemented many programs that have enabled homeowners to bring their properties into compliance” with city housing and health codes by “making needed repairs.”
In his 2007 interview with Toledo Legal News, McConnell, who also has been active in his community through First Church of God, said:
When I grew up in West Virginia, the housing was all provided for the mine workers, so to be in Toledo where the elderly are being charged criminally for not being able to afford repairs is horrible. We’re not giving up, though, we’re doing what we can to help people. I’m passionate about this because I believe what Luke said in the Bible is true: To whom much is given, much is required.
Judge William M. Connelly Jr., the colleague who did the honors for the lesbian couple within 45 minutes of McConnell’s refusal, is a Republican jurist.
The Daily Signal requested an interview with McConnell. Deputy Court Administrator Mike Zenk, however, said it was “unlikely” the judge would have anything else to say before his request for guidance was considered by a board empowered by the Ohio Supreme Court to rule in cases of judicial ethics and conduct.
Late this afternoon, Zenk called back to say the municipal court’s judges decided to resolve the situation by modifying a rule for the so-called duties judge. From now on, the court’s presiding judge, or its designated acting one, will have responsibility for marriages rather than McConnell or one of the other six judges who had been rotating.
In the statement he released Wednesday, McConnell said:
On Monday, July 6, I declined to marry a non-traditional couple during my duties assignment. The declination was based upon my personal and Christian beliefs established over many years.
I apologize to the couple for the delay they experienced and wish them the best. The court has implemented a process whereby same-sex marriages will be accommodated. I will continue to perform traditional marriages during my duties assignment.
I am also seeking an advisory opinion from the Supreme Court of Ohio at this time as to whether or not I can opt out of the rotation. Upon receipt of the advisory opinion from the Supreme Court, I will abide by its decision.
After the municipal judges’ decision that only the presiding judge or acting presiding judge would perform marriages, Presiding Judge Michelle Wagner officiated at her first same-sex wedding, Zenk said.
Connelly, the acting presiding judge, performed two Monday for the court’s total of three so far.