Sabrina Hout, a French city councilor from a Muslim background who refused to perform the marriage of a lesbian couple last year, has been given a five month suspended prison sentence together with hefty damages.
The sentence has been greeted with enthusiasm in much of the media, the more so because it goes over and beyond the public prosecutor’s demands: she had suggested just three months suspended prison and a fine of 1,500 euro. Sabrina Hout will have to pay a total of 2,400 euro (over 3,000 dollars) in damages to the two women she refused to “marry” and to several gay associations who supported their claim.
When the lesbian couple approached Hout to be “married” in August 2014, she did not formally voice her opposition. Instead, she signed the register and the family record book for Claude and Hélène, the lesbian couple who were to “marry” in the town hall of the 8th sector of Marseille, where a large proportion of the population is of Islamic descent.
She then slipped out of the room, leaving a fellow town councilor who had no authority to perform marriages to conduct the ceremony, with a name card that was not his own but belonged to another councilor who did have an official delegation. “He’s black like you,” Hout is supposed to have said.
The press soon picked up on the story, as Hout had apparently refused to celebrate the wedding for religious reasons.
At the time, she gave contradictory explanations: she explained that she “suddenly felt ill” (but she did register four other marriages that same day) but at another point, she said that her brothers, practicing Muslims, had pressured her into it.
“If you perform those marriages, you’ll go to hell,” they are supposed to have said.
At the court hearing at the beginning of September, Hout admitted that she had had “reservations” about same-sex “marriage” at the time of the wedding: “I was undecided, it was so new. I had to think about it.”
Witnesses – including the councilor who replaced her – agree that Hout made clear at the time that her refusal was grounded on her Islamic faith. It has emerged that she asked her colleague to replace her for that “marriage” a full two weeks before it took place.
Hout used illegal means – lying and forgery – to avoid celebrating the ceremony, but the prosecution treated the affair as a case of “discrimination,” as did the judges who said Hout’s defense was in “bad faith” and that she had had “the intention to discriminate against the couple because of their sexual orientation.”
The court’s decision says she organized a “mascarade” in order to escape from “obligations that were hers and hers only.”
It is the first criminal case ever to have made it to the courts regarding refusal to apply the French same-sex “marriage” law that came into effect in May 2013. 17,500 homosexual pairs have “married” since then and opposition to the procedure on the part of “civil status officers” has been cautious.
Marriages in France take place at the town hall: mayors of the 30,000 “communes” have the capacity to register marriages or formally to delegate their capacity to one or more municipal councilors of their choice. A few mayors have refused to “marry” same-sex couples up to date, but they have all caved in under threat of criminal prosecution and administrative persecution.
In a few cases, mayors who tried forthright opposition were immediately submitted to stringent financial investigations – a heavy weapon, given the complexity of the public finances code which makes even the most honest of mayors a potential culprit. In every case, there was a compromise: the “objecting” mayors delegated the capacity to register marriage to a more accommodating town counselor.
A judicial attempt to arrange for conscientious objection – as had initially been announced by president François Hollande, who soon backed away from his promise – was nipped in the bud when the Constitutional Council decided in October 2013 that neither mayors nor their deputies are allowed to invoke their liberty of conscience in regard to same-sex “marriage”.
Given that the way Hout went about it entailed a forgery – the signing of the official register even though she had not witnessed the “marriage” – and that Hout had let the ceremony be conducted by a councilor who had no power of delegation, the whole procedure was legally null and void. Claude and Hélène returned to the town hall in February 2015 to “marry” again.
It was they who sued Hout over the affair, as a public inquiry initiated in the wake of her refusal ended up with Hout only receiving a reprimnad for having forged the marriage documents.
The mayor of the arrondissement where the affair took place, Samia Ghali, also of North-African descent, unsuccessfully tried to persuade Sabrina Hout to step down as a municipal councilor, but has deprived her of her delegation to celebrate “marriages”: the equivalent of a financial sanction insofar as delegates get extra pay for that responsibility.
While Sabrina Hout is under no threat of actually going to jail, the affair does have wider consequences. It is now clear that public prosecutors and tribunals are able and willing to counter conscientious objection with prison sentences and the decision will certainly dissuade other mayors and councilors from trying to avoid their legal obligation to “marry” same-sex couples.