Without explanation, the Arkansas Supreme Court on Friday halted the the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples by granting a request to stay a lower court ruling that had invalidated all laws banning gay marriage.
Hundreds of gays and lesbians have married across the Razorback State since Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza ruled a week ago that the state's ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional. What he called a clerical error prompted confusion among Arkansas' 75 county clerks, leaving some of them willing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples while others refused.
The Supreme Court is still considering an appeal of Piazza's ruling.
With Arkansas off the table for now, 17 states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage. Ten years ago Saturday, Massachusetts became the first state to issue marriage licenses after that state's Supreme Court held a ban on a gay marriage to be unconstitutional.
Arkansas Atty. Gen. Dustin McDaniel has said he will defend the desire of voters who established the same-sex marriage ban in the state constitution despite his personal misgivings about the measure, which defined marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman.
In requesting an emergency stay, McDaniel and the six counties named as defendants in a lawsuit said that the high court needed to put a stop to the confusion.
They argued that the lawmakers now needed time to consider the potential effects should Piazza's ruling be upheld on appeal. The counties said that, for example, an initial review of the ruling suggests a man would be able to marry his brother, even though incestuous marriages are illegal.
The couples who brought the lawsuit said that a stay would cause them further delays in receiving the same legal and financial benefits as opposite-sex couples.
"The very purpose of marriage, in large part, is to provide security in the face of the certainty of death, the strong likelihood of eventual incapacity, and the always-present possibility of debilitating accidents or illnesses," attorneys for the couples wrote in a legal filing Friday. "Same-sex couples who wish to marry are subjected to irreparable harm every day that they are denied their right and forced to live without the protection and security that marriage provides."
But the Arkansas Supreme Court's stay order falls in line with what's happened in a wave of court decisions nationwide during the last year. Each of the decisions -- all favorable to advocates of same-sex unions -- has been put off pending appeal.
"The court today made the right decision to issue a stay, as other courts across the country have done in similar circumstances," Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for McDaniel, said in a statement.
Earlier this week, the Arkansas Supreme Court had refused to delay Piazza's ruling because the judge had yet to rule on a state law banning county clerks from selling marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Piazza later called that failure an oversight.
On Thursday, in three separate court filings, Piazza made clear that the intent of his original ruling was to stop all six counties named in the lawsuit from enforcing any state law that barred recognition of same-sex marriages licensed outside Arkansas, that prohibited same-sex couples from marrying in Arkansas or that denied same-sex married couples “the rights, recognition and benefits associated with marriage in the state of Arkansas.”
The same-sex marriage licenses issued in the last week are likely to be held valid at least by federal authorities, who've done so in similar situations in Utah and Michigan this year. Whether Arkansas officials would recognize them as valid wasn't immediately clear.