Brandon Coker and Michael Golden were sheriff’s deputies in Bossier Parish, Louisiana. When Chief Deputy Sheriff Owens learned in late October 2014 that Coker and Golden had each taken up residence in the other’s house, exchanging spouses without having divorced their current wives, they were placed on administrative leave for violating the Sheriff’s Code of Conduct. The Code includes the obligation to: “Conduct yourselves at all times in such a manner as to reflect the high standards of the Bossier Sheriff’s Office and do not engage in any illegal, immoral, or indecent conduct, nor engage in any legitimate act which, when performed in view of the public, would reflect unfavorably upon the Bossier Sheriff’s Office.”
The Department notified Coker and Golden that, by November 24, each must cease living with a woman not his spouse. If the deputies refused to do so, they would be considered to have terminated employment voluntarily. The deadline passed, their living situations did not change, and they filed suit after being fired.
The deputies claimed their terminations violated their freedom of association protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. They also contended that the County’s code of conduct was unconstitutionally vague in violation of the Fifth Amendment.
A federal appeals court rejected the deputies’ arguments. The Court held that law enforcement officers are held to a different standard than other individuals: “Sexual decisions between consenting adults take on a different color when the adults are law enforcement officers. Their enforcement duties include, for instance, crimes of human trafficking and spousal abuse that place them in sensitive positions with members of the public.
“Their involvement in relations that openly and notoriously violate the legally sanctioned relationships of marriage and family is likely to besmirch the reputation of the Sheriff’s Department and hinder its ability to maintain public credibility. Moreover, these officers’ extramarital relationships, even if consensual and loving at the outset, have great potential to create internal dissension within the force. Finally, it is not hard to envision how the existence of Coker’s and Golden’s cohabitation with each other’s wives prior to divorce and remarriage might be adversely used in litigation concerning the deputies’ official conduct.”
The deputies argued that the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which held that laws banning gay marriage violated the constitution, prohibited their terminations. The Court disagreed, finding that “whatever ramifications Obergefell may have for sexual relations beyond the approval of same-sex marriage are unstated at best, but Obergefell is expressly premised on the unique and special bond created by the formal marital relationship and children of that relationship. Obergefell does not create ‘rights’ based on relationships that mock marriage, and no court has so held.”
Coker v. Whittington, 2017 WL 2240300 (5th Cir. 2017).