Monday was a joyous day for some gay couples in Alabama, but not for others. After the Supreme Court refused to stay a federal judge's ruling that the state's ban on same-sex marriage violated the Constitution, some probate judges issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But others refused, heeding a directive from the state's chief justice, Roy Moore.
The name might be familiar. Moore is a hero to Christian conservatives. He has called homosexuality evil. His previous stint as chief justice ended in 2003, when he was removed from office by an ethics panel after defying a federal court order to take down a mammoth Ten Commandments monument he had installed in the state judicial building to "acknowledge the sovereignty of God." He was elected to the position again in 2012.
Moore accompanied his letter to Alabama's probate judges with a memorandum that made two points. One was that the decision by District Judge Callie Granade striking down the marriage ban was directed to the state's attorney general in one particular case and thus didn't bind the probate judges who issue marriage licenses The other was that state courts, while they are bound by the constitutional interpretations of the Supreme Court, need not accept similar interpretations by lower federal courts.
Neither of these arguments is persuasive. For one thing, Granade made it perfectly clear that her constitutional judgment would extend to cases in addition to the one before her. Moore's other argument is inapt because though it may be true that state court judges are not bound by some federal court rulings, that principle can't necessarily be extended to the administrative action of granting a marriage license.
Given his past pronouncements, it's distressing but not surprising that Moore would throw a gavel into the marriage-license machinery. The problem is that such sabotage has been encouraged by the Supreme Court, which has been needlessly slow to confront clearly the issue of whether bans on same-sex marriage violate the Constitution. Better late than never, it now has agreed to review a decision by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upholding marriage bans in several states under its jurisdiction. A decision is expected before the end of the court's current term.
Supporters of a right to same-sex marriage were cheered Monday when the justices refused to stay the ruling overturning Alabama's ban. Encouraging as such a signal may be, it is no substitute for the sort of conclusive ruling that will make it impossible for the Roy Moores of the world to stall the march toward marriage equality. May it come soon.