Clerk's rebellion for same-sex marriage suits this liberal county

'This is just so Boulder': Liberal county rebels against Colorado ban on same-sex marriage

As the same-sex marriage showdown that has pitted a lone Boulder County clerk against the state's attorney general continues, the locals here just shake their heads at the fuss. And smile.

"This is just so Boulder," said Cheryl Osgood, a 50-year-old born and raised in the quirky, Gore-Tex-wrapped land of wheat grass and brown rice about an hour west of Denver.

Sure, the jokes about the People's Republic of Boulder can grow wearisome. But there is no denying this upscale home of the University of Colorado — a place that voted itself a nuclear-free zone in the 1980s and later became the first U.S. city to replace the words "pet owners" with "pet guardians" in its municipal code — is often a proud beacon for left-leaners in a state still waffling between red and blue.

That is why the unfolding defiance of Clerk and Recorder Hillary Hall, who has vowed to continue to issue same-sex marriage licenses despite threats from Atty. Gen. John Suthers, feels like yet another but-of-course episode in the city's hippie history.

In fact, more than a generation ago another Boulder County clerk went rogue on the same topic.

In 1975 Clela Rorex became the first in the nation to issue marriage licenses to a handful of same-sex couples. One of them later said they had been steered to Rorex by the county clerk in politically conservative El Paso County, home of Colorado Springs. "They do that kind of thing in Boulder," that clerk reportedly said.

Ultimately, those licenses were tossed out as illegal by the state attorney general at the time.

This time around, the dust-up came June 25 on the heels of a ruling by the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver that struck down Utah's ban on same-sex marriage, saying it violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection and due process.

Though the court's ruling involved a Utah case, its decisions are binding in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Wyoming. Colorado does not allow same-sex marriage, but the state amended its constitution to recognize civil unions.

Adding further legal complications is that even though the appellate court said Utah's ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional, it immediately stayed the ruling as appeals continue. It is expected that the case, or a similar one, will land at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Still, within hours of the 10th Circuit ruling, Hall began to sign and affix her office's shiny seal to same-sex marriage licenses, insisting that the court had affirmed the marriages and calling the action long overdue. In eight days she issued 105 marriage licenses.

Hall said Boulder County attorneys gave her the green light, because the federal stay was "ambiguous." Some Colorado legal experts have agreed that the stay could be open to interpretation as to how it would be applied on the state level.

"How do you stay a fundamental right?" she asked reporters at a news conference last week, adding that she saw her office as being on "the right side of history."

The attorney general saw things differently. Suthers said the Utah ruling did not reverse Colorado law and gave Hall until noon July 1 to stop. She didn't.

On Thursday, Suthers, a Republican, filed suit against Hall. He said her solo action — no other county clerk in the state has followed her lead — is not only illegal but misleading to the dozens of couples who have flocked to her office.

Hall bristles at the notion that her actions were politically motivated.

"It's not about politics," she said. "It's about people who love each other."

Still, it is hard to ignore the pervasiveness of liberal politics that finds its way onto the bumper stickers of Subaru Outbacks and Toyota Priuses here, as well as into the voting booth.

In 2012, voter turnout in Boulder County hovered around 93%. President Obama was reelected by nearly 70% and voters legalized recreational marijuana by more than 66%. (The city of Boulder has just under 100,000 residents, with surrounding suburbs adding 200,000 more.)

The reality of modern-day Boulder is that its flower children have grown up, fully funded their 401(k)s, driven real estate prices through the roof and passed the torch — and sometimes the Bob Marley posters — to the next generation.

"Boulder is a place where you stand up for what you believe in," said Naomi Rachel, a 62-year-old professor of biomedical research and ethics at the University of Colorado. She said even her most politically conservative students see same-sex marriage as a non-issue.

"We have a long history of equality here. There is just this ingrained sense of responsibility to the environment and everyone regardless of status or if they are different," agreed Ted Bradshaw, a 61-year-old human resources director for Alfalfa's Market, an independently owned organic grocery store that is a city institution.

In fact, the market is such a Boulder metaphor it even got a shout-out in a song by the band Leftover Salmon: "When I grow up I want to work at Alfalfa's.... A Birkenstocks, spandex, necktie, patchouli grocery store."

Yet for all of its earnestness — critics might call it sanctimony — the city is not without a certain sense of humor.

Alfalfa's hosts Drag Queen Bingo to benefit the Boulder County AIDS Project. And the student cafeteria at the university is named the Alferd Packer Restaurant & Grill for the prospector once accused of cannibalism. Its slogan: "Have a friend for lunch."

Bradshaw, who is gay, had his marriage to his partner in San Francisco invalidated when the California Supreme Court ruled that the city-county clerk there had overstepped by issuing licenses. Although supportive of the Boulder County clerk, Bradshaw doesn't want to get burned twice.

So for now he will watch and wait. And smile.

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