EUREKA SPRINGS, Ark. — Gay marriage arrived in the Bible Belt on Saturday, beginning with two women who had traveled overnight to ensure they’d be first in line.
“Thank God,” Jennifer Rambo said after Carroll County Deputy Clerk Jane Osborn issued a marriage license to her and Kristin Seaton, a former volleyball player at the University of Arkansas. The Fort Smith couple wed moments later on a sidewalk near the county courthouse; the officiant wore a rainbow-colored dress.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza on Friday removed a 10-year-old barrier, saying a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly passed by voters in 2004 banning gay marriage was “an unconstitutional attempt to narrow the definition of equality.” Piazza’s ruling also overturned a 1997 state law banning gay marriage.
But because Piazza didn’t issue a stay, Arkansas’ 75 county clerks were left to decide whether to grant marriage licenses.
Rambo, 26, and Seaton, 27, were the first gay couple to be legally married in the old Confederacy.
They arrived about 2 a.m., slept in a Ford Focus and awoke every half-hour to make sure no one else would take a spot at the head of the line.
As dawn came, no one was certain that any clerk would issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple. Initially, deputy clerk Lana Gordon said she wasn’t sure she had the authority and shooed the couples from her office.
“We just walked out of here crying,” Rambo said.
But once Osborn intervened, other same-sex couples let the couple return to their place in line.
“And some of these people here have been waiting 50 years and they still instructed us to come up front,” Rambo said.
It wasn’t immediately known whether any of the state’s other 74 counties were issuing marriage licenses Saturday. Several were open for early voting for the state’s May 20 primary but said they were not prepared to issue marriage licenses.
Piazza’s lack of a stay caused confusion among the state’s county clerks, said Chris Villines, executive director of the Association of Arkansas Counties.
“The court didn’t give us any time to get the kinks worked out,” Villines said.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said he would appeal the ruling and asked that it be suspended during that process. No appeal had been filed as of midday Saturday.
The U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled that a law forbidding the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages was unconstitutional. Using language similar to that from the Supreme Court, state and federal judges nationwide have struck down other same-sex marriage bans.
Federal judges have ruled against marriage bans in Michigan, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Texas, and ordered Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.
Arkansas’ amendment was passed in 2004 with the overwhelming support of Arkansas voters.
Jerry Cox, president of the Arkansas Family Council, which promoted Arkansas’ ban, said Piazza’s decision to not suspend his ruling will create confusion if a stay is issued.
“Are these people married? Are they unmarried?” Cox said. “Judge Piazza did a tremendous disservice to the people of Arkansas by leaving this in limbo.”
Arkansas’ ruling came a week after McDaniel became the first statewide elected official to announce that he supports gay marriage rights but would continue to defend the state’s ban in court.
Eureka Springs, an Ozark Mountain town of about 2,000, is known for its arts environment and liberal policies in the otherwise conservative northwest Arkansas — along with a 65-foot-tall statue of Jesus and a play about the last days of his life.
In 2007, the Eureka Springs City Council unanimously approved a proposal to create a domestic partner registry that took effect despite several failed efforts to defeat or outlaw the issue. The partnerships confer no special legal status.
Among those who let Rambo and Seaton back up front were Zeek Taylor, 67, and Dick Titus, 65, who have been together 40 years.
Taylor confronted Gordon, the deputy clerk, about closing the office, saying, “Your job is to issue marriage licenses to everyone that’s here.” Gordon said the complaint could be taken up with her boss.
Paul Wank, 80, of Eureka Springs, interrupted the exchange, pointing his black cane at Gordon.
“You don’t have to be hateful, sir,” the deputy clerk said.
“You’ve been hateful to people like me for years. So keep up,” Wank said. “You’re doing everything you can to stall.”