More counties in Alabama issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples

More counties in Alabama began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples Friday, a day after a federal court judge ordered a local judge to issue the documents.

The state of matrimony in Alabama had been confused all week after Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore ordered the state’s probate judges to ignore federal court decisions legalizing gay marriage. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a ruling with two dissents, refused to grant a stay that would have temporarily blocked same-sex marriages.

After the Supreme Court ruling, local judges were caught between the federal decisions and their top state judge who told them to ignore the federal court. About one-third of the state’s 67 counties issued marriage licenses to gay couples, but two-thirds listened to Moore and refused.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Callie Granade, who originally ruled in favor of gay marriage, directed the Mobile County probate judge to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, sending a strong signal to judges around the state that they should follow suit.

It appeared Friday morning that the latest federal ruling was having an impact beyond Mobile County. For example, Colbert County, which had refused marriage licenses to same-sex couples, began to issue them.

Equality Alabama, an advocacy group, said its survey showed that the number of counties issuing marriage licenses had to grown to about 40 by Friday morning. An estimated 75% of the state’s population now lives in a county offering the marriage licenses, it said.

Reaction around the state varied.

“Judge Granade issued an order,” Probate Judge Daniel Rosser told the Los Angeles Times. “We have reviewed that order in consultation with our counsel and it was determined that best course of action was to issue marriage licenses. It is an effort to comply with the federal order and avoid any liability for the citizens of my county.”

No same-sex couple had applied for a marriage license as of Friday mid-morning, he said.

Meanwhile, Coosa County Judge Terry Mitchell, who had not granted same-sex marriage licenses prior to Thursday's federal hearing, declined Friday to define his position at all.

"I'm going to obey the law," he said.

Does that mean issuing same-sex marriage licenses?

"I'm going to obey the law. You tell me what the law is and I'll obey it. That's all anyone is going to get out of me."

He would not offer his interpretation of the law, in light of Granade's ruling. "I'm not here to give legal advice," he said.

Bibb County ran into its own speed bump. The clerk at the Bibb County probate office said the judge, Jerry Pow, has been ill since Monday, when he told staff to follow the orders of Chief Justice Moore. 

"His last words to me were that we would not issue any licenses, so we have to hold with that for now," she said. "We are hoping and praying he will be back Tuesday, and we may have a different decision then."

Advocates said they expected the number of judges issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples to grow but were prepared to take action if some probate judges decided to hold out.

“If necessary, we will bring more suits, but I am optimistic that it will not be,” Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said in an email.

“We think most probate judges will follow the law, regardless of their personal views, and do not want to be in the position of facing litigation in which they could be liable for damages and attorney fees,” he said.

Justice Moore had no immediate comment, despite telephone calls to his office.

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