Judge Opens Door to Gay Weddings in Arkansas

by Andrew Demillo
Saturday May 10, 2014
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Circuit Judge Chris Piazza
Circuit Judge Chris Piazza  (Source:AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

An Arkansas judge has opened the door for gay couples in Arkansas to wed, ruling that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage has "no rational reason" for preventing gay couples from marrying.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza ruled Friday that Arkansas’ 2004 voter-approved amendment to the state constitution violates the rights of same-sex couples. He didn’t put his ruling on hold as some judges have done in other states, and it’s possible gay couples could begin seeking marriage licenses Saturday, if they can find a clerk willing to issue them.

In striking down the ban, Piazza wrote that it is "an unconstitutional attempt to narrow the definition of equality."

"The exclusion of a minority for no rational reason is a dangerous precedent," he said in his ruling.

State Attorney General Dustin McDaniel’s office said he would appeal the ruling and asked Piazza to suspend it during that process.

The ruling came a week after McDaniel announced he personally supports gay marriage rights but would continue to defend the constitutional ban in court. Aaron Sadler, McDaniel’s spokesman, said the attorney general sought the stay because "we know that questions about validity of certain actions will arise absent a stay."

McDaniel, a Democrat in his final year as attorney general, is the first statewide elected official in Arkansas to support marriage equality.

Piazza issued his ruling late Friday, about half an hour after the marriage license office in Pulaski County closed.

Arkansas courthouses typically aren’t open on weekends, but with the state in its early-voting period for a May 20 primary, several clerks’ offices will be open Saturday. However, clerks reached by The Associated Press after Piazza issued his ruling said they hadn’t been formally notified of it and weren’t prepared to begin issuing marriage licenses. Pulaski County Clerk Larry Crane said his office wouldn’t be open over the weekend, but would issue marriage licenses to any same-sex couples that seek them during normal business hours next week if Piazza’s ruling hasn’t been put on hold.

Kathy Henson, who sued with her girlfriend to overturn the ban, said she and Angelia Buford planned to seek a marriage license in neighboring Saline County as soon as offices opened.

"We think that (Piazza) did a really great job and that he ruled on the right side of history," Henson said.

The amendment was passed in 2004 with the overwhelming support of Arkansas voters. Piazza’s ruling also overturns a 1997 state law banning gay marriage.

In his decision, Piazza cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1967 decision that invalidated laws on interracial marriage.

"It has been over 40 years since Mildred Loving was given the right to marry the person of her choice," Piazza wrote, referring to that ruling. "The hatred and fears have long since vanished and she and her husband lived full lives together; so it will be for the same-sex couples. It is time to let that beacon of freedom shine brighter on all our brothers and sisters. We will be stronger for it."

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 started recognizing gay marriages in 2004.

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.

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.

The leader of the group that campaigned for Arkansas’ constitutional amendment said the judge was undercutting the will of voters.

"This ruling undermines marriage because once people start redefining marriage, there seems to be no place to stop," Arkansas Family Council President Jerry Cox said.

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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