EUREKA SPRINGS, Ark.— The state’s top lawyer will ask the Arkansas Supreme Court to review a lower court’s decision to overturn a 2004 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel announced his intent to appeal to the high court late Saturday night, but not before 15 licenses were issued for same-sex couples in northwest Arkansas’ Carroll County, heralding the arrival of gay marriage in the Bible Belt.
“Thank God,” Jennifer Rambo said after Carroll County Deputy Clerk Jane Osborn issued a marriage license to her and Kristin Seaton, a former volleyball player at the University of Arkansas. The Fort Smith couple had traveled overnight to ensure they’d be first in line, and wed moments later on a sidewalk near the courthouse.
Carroll County was believed to be the only county that issued marriage licenses Saturday. Several courthouses were open for early primary-election voting but staffers said they were not prepared to issue marriage licenses.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza paved the way for the marriages Friday with a ruling that removed a 10-year-old barrier, saying a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly passed by voters in 2004 banning gay marriage was “an unconstitutional attempt to narrow the definition of equality.” Piazza’s ruling also overturned a 1997 state law banning gay marriage.
McDaniel has asked Piazza to suspend his ruling, but also formally said late Saturday he wants the state Supreme Court to take up the matter. That appeal has not yet been filed.
But because Piazza didn’t issue a stay, Arkansas’ 75 county clerks were left to decide for themselves whether to grant marriage licenses. That caused confusion among county clerks, Association of Arkansas Counties executive director Chris Villines said.
“The court didn’t give us any time to get the kinks worked out,” he said.
It isn’t clear how many counties would issue same-sex marriage licenses Monday, Villines said Saturday after a conference call with clerks from around the state.
At least one clerk announced she won’t issue licenses to same-sex couples. The office of Faulkner County Clerk Melinda Reynolds issued a statement Sunday night saying she believes that only the State Supreme Court can strike down a state law, not a Circuit Court judge. Until then, Reynolds said she will not issue the licenses.
Rambo, 26, and Seaton, 27, arrived in Eureka Springs about 2 a.m., slept in a Ford Focus and awoke every half-hour to make sure no one else would be at the head of the line.
Initially, deputy clerk Lana Gordon said she wasn’t sure she had the authority and shooed people from her office.
“We just walked out of here crying,” Rambo said.
When Osborn intervened, other same-sex couples let Rambo and Seaton return to their place in line.
“And some of these people here have been waiting 50 years and they still instructed us to come up front,” Rambo said.
Jason Owens, an attorney for four of the six counties named in the lawsuit over the gay marriage ban, said he’ll ask Piazza for guidance Monday on how to proceed.
“My clients want to follow the law. We just want to know what the law is, essentially,” Owens said.
The U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled that a law forbidding the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages was unconstitutional. Using language similar to that from the Supreme Court, state and federal judges nationwide have struck down other same-sex marriage bans and ordered states to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.
Jerry Cox, president of the Arkansas Family Council, which promoted Arkansas’ ban, said Piazza’s decision to not suspend his ruling will create confusion if a stay is issued.
“Are these people married? Are they unmarried?” Cox said. “Judge Piazza did a tremendous disservice to the people of Arkansas by leaving this in limbo.”
McDaniel last week became the first statewide elected official to announce he personally supports gay marriage rights, but would continue to defend the state’s ban in court.
Eureka Springs, an Ozark Mountain town of about 2,000, is known for its arts environment and liberal policies in the otherwise conservative northwest Arkansas. In 2007, the City Council unanimously approved a proposal to create a domestic partner registry. The partnerships confer no special legal status.
Among those who let Rambo and Seaton back up front were Zeek Taylor, 67, and Dick Titus, 65, who have been together 40 years.
Taylor confronted Gordon, the deputy clerk, about closing the office, saying “Your job is to issue a marriage license to everyone that’s here.”
Paul Wank, 80, of Eureka Springs, interrupted the exchange, pointing his black cane at Gordon.
“You don’t have to be hateful, sir,” the deputy clerk said.
“You’ve been hateful to people like me for years. So keep up,” Wank said. “You’re doing everything you can to stall.”