Alabama began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples Monday despite an 11th-hour attempt from the state's chief justice — an outspoken opponent — to block the weddings. But with most county judges reportedly refusing to issue marriage licenses, it appears the fight over gay marriage isn't over yet in the state.
The U.S. Supreme Court said Monday morning that it wouldn't stop the marriages, and shortly after, some probate judges began granting licenses to same-sex couples, some of whom had been lined up for hours and exited courthouses to applause from supporters.
"It's about time," said Shante Wolfe, 21. She and Tori Sisson of Tuskegee had camped out in a blue and white tent and became the first in the county given a license.
But amid marriage rights supporters’ jubilation, judges in at least 50 of the state’s 67 counties refused to grant licenses, The New York Times reported, citing LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign. Most of the defiant counties are in rural areas outside major cities like Birmingham, Huntsville and the capital, Montgomery, where judges are granting licenses.
U.S. District Judge Callie Granade overturned the state's ban on gay marriage but put a stay on her order until Feb. 9 to let the state prepare for the change. Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange requested an extension of the stay because the Supreme Court is expected to rule by the end of June on whether gay couples have a right to marry nationwide, but the high court denied his request on Monday morning, making Alabama the 37th state to allow gays and lesbians to wed.
State Chief Justice Roy Moore sent an order to state probate judges Sunday night, arguing that they are not bound by the ruling of a federal judge on the gay marriage ban. "Effective immediately, no probate judge of the state of Alabama nor any agent or employee of any Alabama probate judge shall issue or recognize a marriage license that is inconsistent with [the Alabama Constitution]," he wrote.
It was a dramatic return to defiance for Moore, who was removed as chief justice in 2003 for refusing to obey a federal court order to remove a washing-machine-size Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building.
Critics lashed out that Moore had no authority to tell county probate judges to enforce a law that a federal judge has ruled unconstitutional. He has been one of the state's most outspoken critics of gay marriage. He called homosexuality an "inherent evil" in a 2002 custody ruling against a lesbian mother.
"This is a pathetic, last-ditch attempt at judicial fiat by an Alabama Supreme Court justice — a man who should respect the rule of law rather than advance his personal beliefs," said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign.
Warbelow urged probate judges to issue the licenses in compliance with Granade's ruling. Granade said that while judges were not a party in the lawsuit, they have a legal duty under the U.S. Constitution to issue the licenses.
It was unclear what, if any, enforcement provision Moore has. Probate judges are elected, just as the chief justice is. Gov. Robert Bentley can take action against elected officials who fail to follow the law. Jennifer Ardis, a spokeswoman for Bentley, said Sunday evening that she did not know about Moore's letter and did not have an immediate comment.
At the Jefferson County Courthouse in Birmingham, about half a dozen same-sex couples waited outside early Monday. Jessie and Cooper Odell took their son with them to witness their marriage. Jessie, 42, said he was surprised by the speed with which Alabama's ban on same-sex marriage fell.
"I knew it was coming, but not this fast with our history on civil rights," he said.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press