Gay couples marry in Arkansas, most clerks sit out
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Dozens of gay couples obtained Arkansas marriage licenses Monday after a judge tossed out the state’s 10-year-old same-sex marriage ban, but only at a handful of courthouses as an overwhelming majority of county clerks in this part of the Bible Belt 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 had 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 cited court process requirements when asked why he waited to file nearly three days after the ban was struck down.
"The Supreme Court requires you to lodge the record, which we could not do until this morning," said his spokesman, Aaron Sadler.
Justices gave both sides until midday Tuesday to lodge arguments with the court, and county clerks inclined to do so could keep authorizing weddings for gay couples.
With the weddings Saturday and Monday, Arkansas became the 18th state to allow same-sex marriages, and the first among former states of the Confederacy.
"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.
A Pulaski County circuit judge tossed out the 2004 constitutional amendment, along with a 1997 state law, after business hours Friday. He didn’t issue a stay, setting up a rush to some courthouses. 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 Eureka Springs, Fayetteville and Little Rock -- where the bulk of the licenses have been issued.
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 suffers from 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. The couple met while at Southern Arkansas University in 1985.
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. Spokesman Kerry Krell said two couples had requested new birth certificates Monday and were given the same paperwork heterosexual parents file to add a second parent’s name to the document.
When Piazza walked into the Pulaski County Courthouse on Monday morning, same-sex weddings were already taking place in the building’s rotunda. He walked to a colleague, Judge Wendell Griffen, and shook his hand, but declined to talk to reporters.
"I have already spoken my opinion," Piazza said.
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.
In Fayetteville, the Washington County seat, clerks issued 23 licenses to same-sex couples Monday morning and one to a heterosexual couple. The office employees used White-Out to correct the documents’ formatting where necessary.
Marion County, with a large population of retirees, said it issued one license to a gay couple, and Saline County, a conservative enclave near Little Rock, said it would if anyone asked. Other clerks said they didn’t have to follow Piazza’s order because their county wasn’t sued over the marriage ban, and others wanted more guidance.
"With all due respect to the Third Division Circuit Court of Pulaski County, a circuit court does not establish or strike down statewide law," Faulkner County Attorney David Hogue said in a statement Sunday. "That would be the role of the State Supreme Court."
One protester at the Pulaski County Courthouse lamented what was happening and warned that God would shutter Arkansas’ water wells.
In the Courthouse rotunda, a crowd cheered Beverly Best and Ashley Mueller when they were married by Julie Gerlinger.
"I now pronounce you wife and wife," Gerlinger said.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.