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In Alabama, a patchwork of reactions over same-sex marriage

Some Alabama judges hire lawyers in face of confusion over same-sex marriage

Like lightning striking a Southern oak, the conflict over gay marriage split the judges of this state Monday.

Some followed the prodding of their own state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who ordered probate judges not to obey a U.S. District Court order striking down Alabama's same-sex marriage ban.

Others agreed with the federal court; they started marrying people in the morning.

Then, there were those who hired their own lawyers — and tried to stand in the middle as best they could.

"On the advice of my counsel, my outside counsel, we are accepting applications for marriage but we are not processing any right now," said Judge Tim Russell in Baldwin County.

The turmoil among judges was just one piece of the convulsion, celebration, rebellion and, sometimes, bored shrugs that swept the state in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to stay U.S. District Judge Callie Granade's order, opening the way for gay marriages in Alabama.

The high court's reticence echoed across the country. Here, in the heart of the Deep South, where change comes slowly and grudgingly, change had arrived.

Fifty years ago — within the memory of many residents — Gov. George C. Wallace stood on the steps of Foster Auditorium to stop two black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. He was opposing federal desegregation orders and fulfilling his campaign promise: "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

That angry call of defiance defined the state for decades as a stubborn holdout against social change.

This time, reaction included abstract discussions of constitutional law, hesitation, opposition, and outbursts of relief and joy.

Ecstatic couples received marriage licenses in scenes similar to those in many other states that had legalized same-sex marriage. Some had been waiting for hours.

"It's about time," Shante Wolfe, 21, told the Associated Press in Montgomery County. She and Tori Sisson of Tuskegee had camped out in a blue and white tent and became the first in the county to receive a license.

In Birmingham, a marriage license went to Dee and Laura Bush, who have been together for seven years and have five children between them.

"It is great that we were able to be part of history," Dee Bush told the Associated Press. After receiving the license, she and Laura walked outside to a park where a minister was performing wedding ceremonies.

But many probate judges, who are responsible for granting marriage licenses in Alabama, said they would refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

"Right now we're not going to do it," Probate Judge Jerry Powell said. "We have direct orders from the state Supreme Court here in Alabama, and I'm going to adhere to it."

"We need more information from the state on what we need to do," said Lisa Whitehead, chief clerk of the probate court in Tuscaloosa County, home to the University of Alabama. "More clarity is needed."

But Susan Watson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, said probate judges risked lawsuits for refusing to issue the licenses.

"I would really think long and hard before defying a federal court order," she said.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley was no George Wallace. Bentley said he was disappointed that the courts had overturned the gay marriage ban, but added that he would not take action against any judge who issued a license to same-sex couples.

"This issue has created confusion with conflicting direction for probate judges in Alabama. Probate judges have a unique responsibility in our state, and I support them. I will not take any action against probate judges, which would only serve to further complicate this issue," the Republican said in a statement.

"We will follow the rule of law in Alabama, and allow the issue of same-sex marriage to be worked out through the proper legal channels," Bentley said.

State Atty. Gen. Luther Strange echoed the governor. "I regret the Supreme Court's decision not to stay the federal District Court's ruling until the high court finally settles the issue this summer," he said. "In the absence of a stay, there will likely be more confusion in the coming months leading up to the Supreme Court's anticipated ruling on the legality of same-sex marriage."

But the most notable effect of the Supreme Court's action — in a state keenly aware of its past — is what didn't happen.

There were few protests, and there seemed to be no disturbances in the major cities. In Birmingham, a police spokesperson said "a dozen or so" protesters stood outside the courthouse but did not interfere with gay couples seeking licenses.

In Montgomery, a police spokesperson responded to questions about protests and arrests with, "Protests about what?"

Pastors across Alabama reacted in varying ways to the advent of same-sex marriage.

At the southern end of the state, in coastal Fairhope, the Rev. Jerry Henry sat in a study lined with books such as Biblia Hebraica and Analytical Greek New Testament, pondering what the changes might mean for the church.

"We don't believe the Scripture condones marriage between two people of the same gender," he said.

Beyond the immediate question of wedding ceremonies, he said, the judges' decisions could set up a larger clash between church and state.

"If we go against the law," he said, "we could lose our tax-exempt status. There are some serious implications here."

At the other end of the state, in Huntsville, Baptist minister Ellin Jimmerson had presided over two weddings by lunchtime.

She had received no word, good or bad, from the Southern Baptist Convention, which opposes same-sex marriage, she said.

"It's been a good day," Jimmerson said.

Twitter: @MatthewTeague

Times staff writers Michael Muskal, Matt Pearce and Kurtis Lee in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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