GULFPORT, Miss. — With same-sex marriages set to begin in Alabama on Monday, the state’s firebrand Supreme Court chief justice has ordered local officials to deny marriage licenses to gay couples.
Chief Justice Roy Moore issued a letter late Sunday advising probate judges – the county officials tasked with issuing marriage licenses — to follow state law rather than the ruling of a federal judge, who struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.
Those who violate his order would face a reprimand by the governor, Moore wrote in his letter.
“Effective immediately, no probate judge of the state of Alabama nor any agent or employee of any Alabama Probate Judge shall issue or recognize a marriage license that is inconsistent” with a constitutional amendment and a state law banning same-sex unions, Moore wrote.
It is unclear how much weight the order will carry with the state’s 68 probate judges, who have the sole responsibility of issuing marriage licenses in the state. A number of them had already indicated they would grant licenses to same-sex couples, despite a letter from Moore last week suggesting that they did not have to comply if they so chose.
Sunday’s letter adds another measure of uncertainty to what was expected to be a day marked with upheaval — but also joy — in Alabama, which joins 36 states and the District that already allow gay couples to legally marry.
Last month, a federal judge struck down a constitutional amendment and law that banned same-sex unions in Alabama. The judge put her ruling on hold until Monday, giving the U.S. Supreme Court time to intervene.
But the Supreme Court said Monday it won’t step in with the Alabama case. Two dissenting justices complained about the court’s “indecorous” action, saying it seemed an attempt to decide the constitutional issue before the high court hears arguments later this term.
The court’s action in allowing the marriages to begin is in keeping with its recent actions, but at odds with its traditions, Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia said in a dissent. The U.S. Supreme Court later this year will consider whether same-sex marriage bans violate the U.S. Constitution.
In Alabama, probate offices around the state were groping over how to proceed. Three probate judges have said they will not issue licenses to any couples, gay or straight, said Alberto Lammers, a spokesman for the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
In Mobile, at least eight couples waited at the probate court, but at 8:20 a.m. the windows remained closed as attorneys met with officials behind closed doors.
Still, attorney Christine Hernandez, who represents one of the couples who challenged the ruling, reassured the crowd.
“It looks like it’s going to happen,” she reported. “We’ve got a Supreme Court ruling.”
This is not the first time Moore has endorsed defying a federal judge’s order. He is best known for refusing to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the state Supreme Court’s building in 2003 in defiance of a federal judge’s ruling. He was removed from office for his actions, but he was reelected to the post three years ago.
Gay rights groups were expecting a festive rather than confrontational atmosphere on Monday, with hundreds of couples likely to obtain marriage licenses. In Birmingham, officiants will be on hand outside the courthouse to marry couples on the spot. A mass reception planned in Huntsville has drawn 800 RSVPs, said Amanda Snipes, campaign manager for Southerners for the Freedom to Marry.
The groups have been trying to steer couples to the probate judges who had indicated they would issue the licenses despite Moore’s first order.
“People are hungry for freedom and love and committed couples taking responsibility for each other and they just want to come together and celebrate,” Snipes said.
Alabama’s request for a stay different is from the others. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which covers Florida, Alabama and Georgia, denied the stays even though the appeals court has not considered the merits of district judge decisions striking the bans in Florida and Alabama. When the Supreme Court agreed to let gay marriages proceed in Florida, it had not agreed to take the cases from other states and decide the constitutional questions.
Thomas said that in “respectfully” dissenting from the decision denying the stay, “I would have shown the people of Alabama the respect they deserve and preserved the status quo while the court resolves this important constitutional question.”