Federal judge: Alabama counties must allow gay marriage
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) With a handful of Alabama counties still refusing to grant gay marriages even as they issued licenses for straight weddings, a federal judge ruled Wednesday that all must abide by court decisions allowing same-sex unions.
Opposition withered as some counties complied with the decision, and gay marriage advocates said they would ask courts to impose penalties on the holdouts that refuse.
U.S. District Judge Callie Granade of Mobile issued a brief order saying state probate judges can't discriminate against gay couples since the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled gay marriage is legal everywhere.
Also Wednesday, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans instructed judges in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas to wrap up gay marriage cases in their states in line with last week's ruling.
Granade's order doesn't affect counties that have stopped issuing all marriage licenses in response to the Supreme Court decision, but a gay rights attorney said other counties must treat people equally or face penalties.
"We will ask Judge Granade to hold them in contempt if they'd don't," said Shannon Minter of the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights in Washington.
Possible penalties include monetary fines, cost assessments and even jail time, but Minter said no decision has been made about which penalties to seek.
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Minter said.
Minter said his group knew of seven of Alabama's 67 counties that were issuing licenses to straight couples but not gay couples early in the day, but the number dropped by at least four when Elmore, Franklin, Tallapoosa and Tuscaloosa counties said they would issue licenses to anyone.
The Alabama Supreme Court has muddied the issue by granting time for gay marriage opponents to voice their opinion about the effects of same-sex weddings.
Granade's order came at the request of groups representing gay couples across Alabama. The judge, who previously overturned the state's ban on same-sex marriage, put earlier decisions on hold to allow time for the justices to rule.
Since Alabama law says counties "may" issue marriage licenses, some probate judges have stopped handling marriage licenses altogether rather than let gay couples wed.
At least 13 Alabama counties as of Wednesday had shut down marriage license operations altogether. Some judges said they were trying to sort out what to do next in the wake of the state court order. A few said they, and their constituents, were philosophically opposed to same-sex marriage.
"Marriage to me is one man, one woman," said Pike County Probate Judge Wes Allen, who said he was adhering to the law by treating couples equally. Allen shut down marriage operations in February, shortly after Granade ruled the Alabama's same-sex marriage ban was unconstitutional. Allen said the feedback he's received from constituents has been "overwhelmingly positive."
"Lots of great feedback. Since February, we just made the decision early on that we weren't going to issue any marriage licenses, and we've stuck by it and that's what we intend to do."
Geneva County Probate Judge Fred Hamic, who also shut down marriage license operations, said he wanted clarification on what counties should do, but also said he had religious objections to gay marriage.
Minter said probate judges might be within their rights to do that, but didn't think it was practical option to keep marriage license operations closed down for everyone. "That's going to make folks pretty unhappy," Minter said.
A dwindling number of local officials in other states continue refusing same-sex marriages.
Seven Mississippi circuit clerks who had been refusing marriage licenses for same-sex couples said their concerns were eased following a meeting with staff members for Attorney General Jim Hood, and they would join most other counties and issue licenses.
And in Louisiana, Red River Parish may be the last refusing the unions.
In an emailed statement, Red River Court Clerk Stuart Shaw said his Christian beliefs may keep him from issuing same-sex licenses, and he was awaiting final word on a federal appeals court ruling.
Shaw said his office will eventually comply, with workers who don't object to gay marriage handling the licenses.
After the Supreme Court declared that marriage is a constitutional right equally held by all Americans, clerks in Arkansas and Mississippi resigned rather than be forced to sign the licenses of gays and lesbians.
AP writer Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans and Martin Swant and Kim Chandler in Montgomery, Ala. contributed to this report.