First same-sex marriage license issued in Arkansas day after 2004 ban overturned
Jennifer Rambo, right, of Fort Smith, Ark., kisses her partner Kristin Seaton, left, of Jacksonville, Ark., following their marriage ceremony in front of the Carroll County Courthouse on Saturday, May 10, 2014, in Eureka Springs, Ark. (AP / Sarah Bentham)
Christina Huynh, The Associated Press
Published Saturday, May 10, 2014 11:49AM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, May 10, 2014 10:38PM EDT
EUREKA SPRINGS, Ark. -- Gay marriage arrived in the Bible Belt in the U.S. South on Saturday, beginning with two women who had travelled overnight to ensure they'd be first in line.
But whether the marriages could continue on Monday and beyond was not clear, and the state's top lawyer said he'd appeal Friday's ruling that overturned the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriages.
In total, 15 licenses were issued Saturday for same-sex couples in Carroll County, Deputy Clerk Jane Osborn said.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza's ruling removed a 10-year-old barrier, saying a state constitutional amendment overwhelmingly passed by Arkansas 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.
Arkansas' 75 county clerks were left to decide for themselves whether to grant marriage licenses.
If the judge's decision is upheld, Arkansas would join the 17 states and Washington, D.C., that have legalized same-sex marriage.
Momentum has swung toward gay marriage across the country after the U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled that a law forbidding the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages was unconstitutional. Since then, lower-court judges have repeatedly cited the decision when striking down some of the same-sex marriage bans that were enacted after Massachusetts became the first state to recognize gay marriages in 2004.
Jennifer Rambo, 26, and Kristin Seaton, 27, were the first gay couple to be legally married Saturday in one of the secessionist southern states that belonged to the losing side in the American Civil War in the 1860s. Anti-gay marriage sentiments run strong in this region known as the Bible Belt because of its large numbers of social conservatives.
Rambo and Seaton arrived in Eureka Springs about 2 a.m., slept in their vehicle and awoke every half-hour to make sure no one else would take a spot at the head of the line.
"Thank God," Rambo said after Osborn issued their marriage license. The couple wed moments later on a sidewalk near the county courthouse; the officiant wore a rainbow-colored dress.
As dawn came, no one was certain that any clerk would issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple. Initially, deputy clerk Lana Gordon said she wasn't sure she had the authority and shooed the couples from her office.
"We just walked out of here crying," Rambo said.
But once Osborn intervened, other same-sex couples let the couple 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.
It wasn't known whether any of the state's other 74 counties were issuing marriage licenses Saturday.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel on Saturday notified Piazza that he would appeal Piazza's ruling to the state Supreme Court.
Federal judges have ruled against same-sex marriage bans in Michigan, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Texas, and ordered Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.
In all, according to gay-rights groups, more than 70 lawsuits seeking marriage equality are pending in about 30 states. Democratic attorneys general in several states -- including Virginia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Oregon and Kentucky -- have declined to defend same-sex marriage bans.
Jerry Cox, president of the Arkansas Family Council, which promoted the gay-marriage ban in 2004, said Piazza's decision to not suspend his ruling will create confusion if a stay is later issued that stops marriages while any appeals are pursued.
"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."
Arkansas' ruling came a week after McDaniel became the first statewide elected official in Arkansas to announce he personally supports gay marriage rights. But he said he would continue to defend the constitutional ban in court.
Among those who let Rambo and Seaton back up front in line 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 marriage license to everyone that's here." Gordon said the complaint could be taken up with her boss.
Paul Wank, 80, 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."
Associated Press writers Kurt Voigt in Eureka Springs and Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock contributed to this report.
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