Gay couples flood southern US courthouse for marriage licenses; most clerks wait on high court

The Associated Press
May 12, 2014 06:46 AM

CORRECTS CITY TO FAYETTEVILLE, ARK. INSTEAD OF LITTLE ROCK - Washington County Clerk Becky Lewallen, rear left, opens the door Monday morning, May 12, 2014, for waiting couples about to buy marriage licenses, in Fayetteville, Ark. The county began issuing licenses to same-sex couples following a judge’s ruling overturning the state’s ban. (AP Photos/Kurt Voigt)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - More than 200 gay couples obtained marriage licenses Monday in the conservative southern state of Arkansas after a judge tossed out its 10-year-old same-sex marriage ban, but only at a handful of courthouses as an overwhelming majority of county clerks said they first wanted the state Supreme Court to weigh in.

Attorney General Dustin McDaniel — who recently announced his personal support for same-sex marriage rights but said he would defend the law — filed paperwork Monday to at least temporarily preserve the ban, which voters approved by a 3-to-1 margin.

In other states that have seen gay-marriage bans overturned, judges either issued stays with their orders or state lawyers sought them with some immediacy. McDaniel's office requested a stay from the local judge Friday night but had to wait until the full court record was available Monday before going to the state Supreme Court, under the justices' rules. Justices gave both sides until midday Tuesday to file arguments.

Seventy of the state's 75 clerks have not granted licenses. A handful of clerks, including one who granted licenses Monday, filed a stay request saying the judge's decision didn't address a law that threatens clerks with fines for "wrongful issuance of a marriage license."

With the weddings Saturday and Monday, Arkansas became the 18th state to allow same-sex marriages, and the first among former states of the old Confederacy, which broke away from the U.S. during its Civil War in the 1860s.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that a law forbidding the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages was unconstitutional. Using similar language, judges have since ruled against gay-marriage bans in Arkansas, Michigan, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Texas, and ordered Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.

Democratic attorneys general in several states — including Kentucky, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Virginia — have declined to defend same-sex marriage bans.

"On our licenses, it automatically prints 'Mr.' and I told the girls just to change that to 'Ms.'" said Becky Lewallen, the county clerk in Washington County, which is home to the University of Arkansas. She was among those who requested a stay.

A Pulaski County circuit judge tossed out the 2004 constitutional amendment, along with a 1997 state law, after business hours Friday. Carroll County, home to the town of Eureka Springs and known for its arts environment and liberal policies, issued 15 licenses to same-sex couples Saturday but stopped Monday to await word from the state's high court.

The 2004 gay-marriage ban passed in all 75 counties, but fared poorest around Little Rock and other areas where the bulk of the licenses have been issued. Pulaski County said an overwhelming majority of the 170 licenses it issued Monday were to same-sex couples. Washington County had 84 gay couples — with office employees at Fayetteville using White-Out to correct "Mr." or "Ms." where necessary.

Shelly Butler, 51, and Susan Barr, 48, of Dallas, were the first to marry at Little Rock, arriving from Texas late Sunday night. They were allowed to go to the head of the line because Barr, who has a form of muscular dystrophy, is in a wheelchair.

"I am just in shock, I think. You go from being so private and hidden to such a public display of commitment. It's just so nice," Barr said.

Friday's ruling by Judge Chris Piazza also led the state Department of Health to let same-sex couples be listed as parents on birth certificates, spokeswoman Kerry Krell said.

The Human Rights Campaign asked the U.S. Justice Department to extend federal recognition to the couples married in Arkansas, making them eligible for the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples.

In Alaska Monday, five gay couples challenged the state's ban on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional in a lawsuit filed in federal court in Anchorage. It also calls for barring enforcement of any state laws that refuse to recognize gay marriages legally performed in other states or countries or that prevent unmarried gay couples from marrying.

Alaska voters in 1998 approved a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between one man and one woman.


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