LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Arkansas' whirlwind week of granting of marriage licenses to same-sex couples ended Friday when the state Supreme Court ordered a temporary stop just as a final pair completed their paperwork at a Little Rock courthouse.
More than 540 gay couples received marriage licenses during the last week after a Pulaski County circuit judge declared the state's same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional. Hilda Jones and Kerin Hartsell, who drove 2 1/2 hours from Chidester, were the last couple to receive a license just downstairs from Judge Chris Piazza's courtroom.
"When we got there and the lady said you have six minutes, we were like, `Oh my gosh!"' Jones said. They rushed to fill out an application for a marriage license and wed moments later. "Today happened to be the day we both could get off work and get up here, and we barely made it."
Piazza's ruling a week earlier had triggered confusion for county clerks, and since Saturday 69 of the 75 local officials declined to issue any. Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who favors marriage rights for gay couples but vowed to defend the state's laws, sought an emergency stay, as did lawyers for four counties.
The one-paragraph order by the justices put on hold Piazza's decision voiding a 2004 constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, plus a broader ruling he made Thursday after justices noted that a separate law that barred clerks from issuing same-sex marriage licenses remained on the books.
Pulaski County, the state's largest, had resumed issuing same-sex marriage licenses immediately after Piazza's ruling Thursday, while Washington County began issuing them again Friday morning. Conway County, too, said it would grant licenses to same-sex couples. Three couples who had issued licenses previously did not -- Carroll, Marion and Saline.
"It's been a roller coaster ride," said Washington County Clerk Becky Lewallen. "We're issuing, we're not issuing, we're issuing, we're not issuing -- it's been a mess."
The validity of the licenses that were issued remained uncertain. McDaniel and Gov. Mike Beebe have said the high court will have to weigh in.
McDaniel has said he will appeal Piazza's ruling; a lawyer for gay couples who sued for the right to marry said he was hopeful justices would take up the case this year.
"The handwriting's on the wall from the United States Supreme Court," attorney Jack Wagoner said. "Unless every court is reading the U.S. Supreme Court wrong, the days of barring same-sex couples from marrying are coming to an end."
McDaniel's office said the order ended the uncertainty for the state's clerks.
"As this office stated in its pleadings, a stay prevents confusion and uncertainty until the Arkansas Supreme Court decides this matter on appeal," said McDaniel spokesman Aaron Sadler.
Seventeen other states allow gay marriage. Federal and state judges have ruled against bans in Michigan, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, Texas, Arkansas and Idaho and ordered Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee to recognize same-sex marriages from other states. In some places judges have put their own orders on hold, while in others higher courts have done so after court clerks allowed some same-sex couples to marry.
In Idaho, plans for same-sex marriages to begin Friday were put on hold as the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals considered whether the governor and attorney general should have more time to file an appeal of a judge's ruling overturning its state ban. A federal judge on Friday said he'll issue a decision next week on a constitutional challenge to Oregon's same-sex marriage ban.
The head of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest U.S. lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights group, said he was hopeful Arkansas' ban would eventually fall.
"We're confident that when the Supreme Court hears this case, they'll choose to be on the right side of history," said HRC President Chad Griffin, an Arkansas native. The group has asked the Justice Department to extend federal recognition to the couples.
The Arkansas Supreme Court had denied a request earlier in the week to stay Piazza's initial ruling, but still effectively halted same-sex weddings by also noting that a separate law prohibiting clerks from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples was still on the books.
In his revised and expanded order, Piazza said no one in the state was harmed by the marriage licenses issued to same-sex couples. He rejected the state's request to put his decision on hold, saying gay couples would be harmed by that action.