A federal judge on Thursday ordered an Alabama official to start issuing marriage licenses to gay couples in compliance with an earlier order, but couples in most counties were still unable to obtain licenses.
US District Judge Callie Granade's order clarified that Mobile County Probate Court Judge Don Davis was compelled to adhere to her previous ruling striking down the state's gay marriage ban despite a contravening order from Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore that led many state judges to refrain from issuing licenses to gay couples.
Granade's directive marked the latest twist in the controversy over gay marriage in Alabama, where probate judges have faced conflicting orders from federal and state courts. The resulting disarray has allowed same-sex couples to marry in places such as Birmingham, while those applying for marriage licenses in dozens of counties have been turned away.
Alabama is the 37th US state where gay marriage has been legalized, and the first in the Deep South, where many voters are socially conservative.
The US Supreme Court refused on Monday to grant a request from Alabama's Republican attorney general to keep the weddings on hold until it decides later this year whether laws banning gay matrimony violate the US Constitution.
But Moore ordered state judges to defy Granade's ruling and uphold the state's gay marriage ban, an order his office said remained in effect despite the Supreme Court's action.
Granade's order on Thursday applied specifically to Mobile County, where, within an hour of the ruling, same-sex couples who had been waiting in line at a county building began to receive licenses.
Among those in line was Meredith Miller, 32, who said plans to wed her partner of almost nine years on Valentine's Day would mean an end to fears of being shut out from making decisions on each other's behalf in the event of a medical emergency. "The worry that is always in the back of your mind, the worry that a lot of couples don't ever have to experience, that is going to go away now," Miller said.
NARROW RULING Attorneys for four same-sex couples named as plaintiffs in the suit, among them Miller and her partner, had urged Granade to issue a broad ruling to compel all judges in the state to begin granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
But with the ruling applying narrowly to Davis, none of the judges in the other 43 of Alabama's 67 counties that have refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples changed course in its immediate aftermath, gay rights advocates said.
J. Michael Druhan, the lawyer for Davis, whose county is the most populous of those that have refused to issue the licenses, told Granade during a hearing before her order that the probate judge was stuck between the conflicting court directives and simply wanted guidance.
Druhan likened Davis, who had kept his office's marriage license operations shuttered since Granade's earlier ruling went into effect on Monday, to a US soldier frozen to the spot after stepping on a mine in a Vietnamese paddy field. "If he stands there and does nothing, the snipers are going to shoot him in the head," he said. "If he moves, the mine's going to blow him to pieces." Most legal experts say Alabama's probate judges, who are elected officials in a state that passed a gay marriage ban in 2006 with 81 per cent of the vote, will ultimately have little choice but to follow the federal court's ruling.
Among those waiting for marriage licenses in Mobile was Mack Douglas, 28, who with his girlfriend was relieved the office was open for the first time this week.
Douglas said he was raised to believe homosexuality was wrong and it felt a bit awkward to be waiting in line with so many same-sex couples. "When everyone was walking over here, I kind of stared off the other way," he said. "I kind of blocked it out of my mind."