JACKSON, Miss. – A federal appeals court Wednesday instructed judges in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas to wrap up gay marriage cases in their states in line with last week's U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
The order Wednesday from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals clears one of the final procedural roadblocks in the three cases, which had been pending before the New Orleans-based court. The 5th Circuit had heard arguments in the appeals, but hadn't ruled.
The court's ruling was issued on the same day that a federal judge in Alabama ordered a handful of counties in that state still refusing to issue gay-marriage licenses to abide by the high court's decision.
Circuit Judge Jerry Smith, writing for the three-judge panel in New Orleans, told federal district judges in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas to issue final rulings by July 17 at the latest. The appeals court told U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman in New Orleans that he, in particular, needed to hurry because of the declining health of one of the Louisiana plaintiffs, Robert Welles. Feldman's attorney, Scott Spivey, declined comment.
Smith wrote in three separate opinions that the U.S. Supreme Court's decision that marriage is a constitutional right equally held by all Americans "is the law of the land and, consequently, the law of this circuit, and should not be taken lightly by actors within jurisdiction of this court."
People seeking legalization of same-sex marriage had won cases at the district level in Mississippi and Texas, but lost in Louisiana. Public officials in all three states had opposed any change, but had conceded in letters to the court in recent days that the proper course was to conclude the cases with final orders from the district judges legalizing same-sex marriage. The 5th Circuit dissolved its stay blocking lower court orders in Mississippi and Texas.
U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves in Jackson quickly issued a final order overturning Mississippi's constitutional and legal bans on same-sex marriage. U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia in San Antonio had lifted the stay blocking his injunction last week.
Mike Reed, a spokesman for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, wrote in an email that the governor still wanted a final ruling from Feldman.
"Our agencies will follow the Louisiana Constitution until the district court orders us otherwise," Reed wrote.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said he was cheered by Smith's decision to include language from the Supreme Court opinion saying that people remained free to disagree with same-sex marriage for religious or other reasons.
"While I still deeply disagree with the decision of five U.S. Supreme Court justices to remove the authority to regulate marriage from states, I am heartened by the 5th Circuit's implication that it recognizes the rights of people of faith as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution," Bryant said in a statement. "As governor, I will my continue efforts to protect the religious liberties of Mississippians."
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton echoed those sentiments.
"The new right created by the U.S. Supreme Court to same-sex marriage can and must peaceably coexist with longstanding constitutional and statutory rights, including freedoms of religion and speech, and today's ruling by the Fifth Circuit reflects that truth," Paxton said in a statement released Wednesday night.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Chris Otten, chair of the Forum for Equality Louisiana, which filed Louisiana's lawsuit, said officials should act at once.
"The state made it very clear that it would follow the Supreme Court decision once the 5th Circuit ruled. We call on Gov. Jindal and all state officials to honor the 5th Circuit's command," he said in a statement.
Roberta Kaplan, who represented the Mississippi plaintiffs, was more succinct.
"It's over," she told The Associated Press by telephone.
All parishes in Louisiana now say they are willing to issue licenses to same-sex couples, and holdouts among Mississippi counties dwindled sharply Wednesday after a group of seven circuit clerks met with Gov. Phil Bryant and representatives of Attorney General Jim Hood.
Associated Press Writer Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans contributed to this report.
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