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Liberal town in U.S. Bible Belt issues first same-sex marriage licenses

AP

Gay marriage arrived in the Bible Belt in the U.S. South on Saturday, beginning with two women who had traveled overnight to ensure they’d be first in line.

In total, 15 licenses were issued for same-sex couples in northwest Arkansas’ Carroll County, Deputy Clerk Jane Osborn said after her office closed Saturday afternoon.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza paved the way Friday with a ruling that removed a 10-year-old barrier, saying a state constitutional amendment overwhelmingly passed by Arkansas 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 did not issue a stay, Arkansas’ 75 county clerks were left to decide for themselves whether to grant marriage licenses.

If the judge’s decision is upheld, Arkansas will join the 17 states and Washington, D.C., that have legalized same-sex marriage.

Momentum has swung toward gay marriage across the country after the U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled that a law forbidding the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages was unconstitutional. Since then, lower-court judges have repeatedly cited the decision when striking down some of the same-sex marriage bans that were enacted after Massachusetts became the first state to recognize gay marriages in 2004.

Jennifer Rambo, 26, and Kristin Seaton, 27, were the first gay couple to be legally married in one of the secessionist Southern states that belonged to the old Confederacy on the losing side in the American Civil War in 1861-65. Anti-gay marriage sentiments run strong in this region known as the Bible Belt because of its large numbers of socially conservative evangelicals.

Rambo and Seaton arrived in Eureka Springs about 2 a.m., slept in a car and awoke every half-hour to make sure no one else would take a spot at the head of the line.

“Thank God,” Rambo said after Osborn issued a marriage license to her and Seaton, a former volleyball player at the University of Arkansas. The couple from Fort Smith, Arkansas, wed moments later on a sidewalk near the county courthouse; the officiant wore a dress with all the colors of the rainbow.

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 Association of Arkansas Counties Executive Director Chris Villines.

“The court didn’t give us any time to get the kinks worked out,” Villines said.

Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said he will appeal Piazza’s ruling and asked that it be suspended during that process. No appeal had been filed as of midday Saturday.

Federal judges have ruled against same-sex marriage bans in Michigan, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Texas, and ordered Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.

In all, according to gay-rights groups, more than 70 lawsuits seeking marriage equality are pending in about 30 states. Democratic attorneys general in several states — including Virginia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Oregon and Kentucky — have declined to defend same-sex marriage bans.

Jerry Cox, president of the Arkansas Family Council, which promoted the gay-marriage ban in 2004, said Piazza’s decision to not suspend his ruling will create confusion if a stay is issued later.

“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’ amendment banning same sex-marriage was passed in 2004 with the overwhelming support of the state’s voters. Piazza’s ruling also overturned a 1997 state law banning gay marriage.

“The exclusion of a minority for no rational reason is a dangerous precedent,” he wrote.

Arkansas’ ruling came a week after McDaniel became the first statewide elected official in Arkansas to announce he personally supports gay marriage rights. But he said he will continue to defend the constitutional ban in court.

Eureka Springs, an Ozark Mountain town of about 2,000, is known for its arts environment and liberal policies in otherwise conservative northwest Arkansas — along with a 65-foot-high (20-meter-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 (a) marriage license 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.”