Gay couples got married in Alabama on Monday despite a last-minute push from the state’s chief justice to stop them.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to block a federal court order from January requiring the state to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. In Birmingham, cheers and applause went up at the probate court as licenses were issued.
“We have large crowds generally on Valentine’s Day here,” Judge Alan King of Jefferson County Probate Court told NBC News by phone. “This is by far the largest crowd that I’ve seen. It’s a very happy occasion.”
Alabama became the 37th state to recognize gay marriage. One of the first licenses went to Dee and Laura Bush, who walked outside to a park where a minister was performing wedding ceremonies.
“I figured that we would be that last ones — I mean, they would drag Alabama kicking and screaming to equality,” Laura Bush told The Associated Press.
But probate courts in roughly two-thirds of the state’s counties declined to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. In Shelby County, gay couples who turned up to get a license were greeted by a sign saying that no marriage licenses of any kind would be issued because of conflicting orders.
Four same-sex couples who led the marriage lawsuit in Alabama were also denied wedding licenses in Mobile County. Their lawyers filed an emergency motion with Judge Callie V.S. Granade, asking her to instruct Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis to issue them marriage licenses.
“While many same-sex couples in Alabama were able to marry today, many others were denied that basic freedom," said Sharon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "We are hopeful that a ruling on this motion will provide clarity regarding the obligations of probate judges across the state and correct the misunderstanding generated by Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who has erroneously instructed those judges not to comply with the requirements of the federal Constitution."
On Sunday night, Moore ordered the state’s probate judges not to issue same-sex marriage licenses. “A marriage contracted between individuals of the same sex is invalid in this state,” he wrote.
Moore, in a telephone interview with NBC News, insisted on Monday that the federal courts had gone too far, and had no power to order state probate judges to do anything.
“A lot of states in this union have caved to such unlawful authority, and this is not one,” he said. “This is Alabama. We don’t give up the recognition that law has bounds.”
“Once you start redefining marriage, that’s the ultimate power,” he added. “Would it overturn the laws of incest? Bigamy? Polygamy? How far do they go?”
Moore is known for installing a Ten Commandments monument in 2001 at the state judicial building. He was removed from office in 2003 over the issue but returned by voters in 2012.
Gov. Robert Bentley said in a statement that he, too, disagreed with the federal court ruling, by Granade in Mobile. But the governor said he would take no action against probate judges who issued licenses to gay couples.
“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,” he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to definitively answer, probably in late June, whether the Constitution allows states to ban same-sex marriage.
The Supreme Court ruling on Monday denied a request for a stay by the state. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.
Writing for the two of them, Thomas said by declining to act, the Supreme Court “looks the other way as yet another Federal District Judge casts aside state laws without making any effort to preserve the status quo pending the Court’s resolution of a constitutional question” — namely, whether the U.S. Constitution requires states to license and recognize marriage for gay couples.
Declining to honor Alabama’s request for a stay, Thomas said, “may well be seen as a signal of the Court’s intended resolution of that question,” but he says it’s not the way the court should treat stay requests from the states.
The Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay rights organization, urged Alabama probate judges to ignore the chief justice, follow the Constitution and issue the licenses.
“This is a pathetic, last-ditch attempt at judicial fiat by an Alabama Supreme Court justice — a man who should respect the rule of law rather than advance his personal beliefs,” Sarah Warbelow, the organization’s legal director, said in a statement.
Alabama voters approved a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in 2006.