July 07, 2015

State’s probate judges split on how to handle new marriage ruling

Posted: Monday, June 29, 2015 7:55 pm | Updated: 12:25 am, Tue Jun 30, 2015.

The probate judges for Talladega and St. Clair counties said they will begin issuing marriage licenses this morning after conferring with legal counsel about the new marriage ruling.

Talladega County Probate Judge Billy Atkinson had initially said he planned to wait for further guidance from the state Supreme Court before proceeding, but by Monday evening he had changed his mind, after consulting with his attorney and the county attorney.

“Our legal folks have run everything down during the last few hours, and we are going to proceed with issuing the licenses in the morning and on down the line.”

St. Clair County Probate Judge Mike Bowling issued a similar statement Monday. After a meeting with county attorney Jim Hill Monday morning, and after the opinion and recommendation of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, the probate office will begin selling licenses starting at 10 a.m. today.

Hill, in a statement of his own, said “The U.S. Supreme Court has issued an Order related to marriage and we will comply with the law. I would echo the sentiments of our Attorney General who said: ‘While I do not agree with the opinion of the majority of justices in their decision, I acknowledge that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling is now the law of the land. Short of the passage of a Constitutional Amendment protecting marriage as between one man and one woman, the U.S. Supreme Court has the final say.’”

Accurate counts of counties honoring the Supreme Court ruling were hard to come by Monday. While county officials in other states seemed to have little trouble complying with the high court’s Friday order — which ruled that marriage is a fundamental right and can’t be denied to same-sex couples — many of Alabama’s probate judges seemed unsure about their obligations in the wake of the ruling.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do about it. It’s confusing,” said Conecuh County Probate Judge Rogene Booker. “I’m not going to say one way or the other.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Friday in Obergefell v. Hodges was greeted by much of the nation as a green light for same-sex marriage nationwide, including states where gay unions were once blocked by state law.

The Alabama Association of County Commissions on Friday urged probate judges to wait until 10 a.m. Monday to issue licenses to any couple, pending a review of the high court’s ruling. By 10 a.m., more than a dozen counties had announced they were issuing licenses to same-sex couples.

Four more counties, Bibb, Clarke, Pike and Cleburne, announced they were no longer in the business of issuing marriage licenses to any couple. Judges in those counties cited a passage in state law that says probate offices “may” issue licenses but aren’t required to.

Susan Watson, spokeswoman for the Alabama Civil Liberties Union, said counties that issue to different-sex couples without issuing to same-sex couples would likely face legal action. She said one county, Tuscaloosa, was doing that.

Watson said that in counties where no licenses are being issued, probate judges could face political fallout in coming elections. Same-sex and different-sex couples, denied a marriage license in their home county, could take their frustration out at the ballot box, she said.

“If I were living in a county that doesn’t issue marriage licenses, I’d be pretty upset,” she said.

By Monday afternoon, at least 31 of the state’s 67 counties had confirmed that they would issue licenses to same-sex couples.

Reporting by Ramsey Archibald, Alexis Barton, Seth Boster, Kirsten Fiscus, Chris Kowalski, Chris Norwood, Gary Hanner and Tim Lockette.

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