Insubstantial Burdens: The Case for Government Employee Exemptions to Same-Sex Marriage Laws

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This article takes up what is arguably the hardest case for accommodation: exemptions for government employees, namely clerks, working in a state marriage registrar’s office. This article argues that government employees who have religious objections should be permitted to step aside from facilitating same-sex marriages when it poses no hardship for same-sex couples. It is incumbent upon a pluralistic liberal democracy to avoid forcing a needless choice between one’s beliefs and one’s livelihood. When another willing clerk is available, a religious objector should be able to step aside. In the case where another willing clerk is not available, however, the employee’s religious objection must yield because the state has granted same-sex couples the right to marry. This article documents the very real human costs that would flow from denying an accommodation and recounts a rash of dismissals, disciplinary proceedings, fines, and warnings leveled at government employees who object for religious reasons to assisting with same-sex marriage. This article then presents a proposed exemption that would allow government employees to step aside from facilitating same-sex marriages only when it poses no hardship to same-sex couples. Finally, this article addresses two commonly articulated reasons for dismissing the need to accommodate government employees: that a religious liberty accommodation would unconstitutionally burden the right to marry, and that government employees owe taxpayers service untainted by their private religious beliefs.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)318
Number of pages1
JournalNorthwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2010


  • same-sex marriage
  • religious liberty


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