CLANTON, Ala. — Confusion reigns in Alabama over gay marriage, days after the first same-sex wedding licenses were issued in the Deep South state. Probate judges say it's been a bewildering week of conflicting signals whether to issue those licenses or not.
Probate judges in at least 22 of the 67 counties are issuing the licenses but others are not -- either denying licenses to gay couples or shutting down marriage license operations altogether because the probate judges aren't sure what to do.
Chilton County Probate Judge Bobby Martin, in the small town of Clanton halfway between the cities of Birmingham and Montgomery, is a case in point.
He issued a wedding license to a gay couple first thing Monday after a federal judge ruled the state's gay marriage ban was unconstitutional. But Martin stopped after learning of a warning from Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, a conservative supporter of the state's gay marriage ban, who wrote the probate judges that such unions were still illegal in the state.
Moore sent a directive to probate judges Sunday instructing them to refuse the licenses — one day before an order by U.S. District Judge Callie Granade allowing gay marriage was to take effect. Moore argued that the probate judges weren't defendants in the lawsuit that prompted Granade's decision and didn't have to abide by the order.
Juggling the sides, Martin said he decided that a federal court order would override a "memorandum" from Moore. So the probate office, in the rural Alabama county known for its peach farms, sold its second marriage license to a gay couple on Wednesday.
"It's like being on a wild ride on a roller coaster," said Martin, a probate judge for 26 years.
The legal push-and-pull continues.
Meanwhile, gay couples wanting to marry are hoping that probate judges statewide will receive clear direction to issue the licenses after a federal court hearing before Granade Thursday afternoon.
Granade scheduled the hearing on a request by several couples seeking to force Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis to issue licenses. Davis said he shut down marriage licenses operations in the face of conflicting orders from Moore and Granade.
"We are asking Judge Granade to direct Probate Judge Davis to issue marriage license on an equal basis to qualified same-sex couples," said Shannon Price Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
The Alabama Supreme Court on Wednesday denied a request by Davis for clarification on what he should do. The justices said they had no authority to give him an advisory opinion.
Milton Persinger, 47, and his partner Robert Povilat, 60, have tried to get a marriage license in Mobile since Monday. Persinger said they could go to another city, but shouldn't have to.
"This is where I live. This is where I want to be married," Persinger said.
Two conservative groups have written to the all-Republican Alabama Supreme Court, asking that they join their conservative chief justice in directing probate judges to refuse marriage licenses to gay couples.
Lawyers for The Alabama Policy Institute and Alabama Citizens Action Program wrote that the probate judges are awaiting "a clear judicial pronouncement that Alabama law prohibits the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples."
Even the president of the state probate judge's association is awaiting a clear signal. "I'm hoping we can get some clarification on all this," said Probate Judge Greg Norris of Monroe County. He decided to issue same-sex licenses after initially refusing to dispense any, straight or gay, because of the confusion.
In Clanton, Martin said he just wants clarity. A Christian whose courthouse office is decorated with crosses, Martin personally opposes gay weddings but said he's intent on following the law.
"It's been an awful week," he said of the conflicting signals.