February 9, 2015 at 5:26 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Marriage equality comes to Alabama, but with hiccups
Tori Sission, Shante Wolfe, Alabama, same-sex marriage, gay marriage, marriage equality, gay news, Washington Blade

Tori Sission and Shante Wolfe were the first same-sex couple to wed in Montogomery, Ala. (Photo courtesy HRC)

Alabama on Monday became the 37th state in the nation to enact marriage equality, although the transition wasn’t seamless after anti-gay posturing from opponents.

Same-sex couples began marrying in major cities like Birmingham and Montgomery in the aftermath of two rulings from U.S. District Judge Callie V.S. Granade against the state’s prohibition on gay nuptials, which went into effect on Monday.

Tori Sisson and Shante Wolfe, who met two years ago at Tuskegee University where they attended school, were the first same-sex couple to wed in Montgomery after camping out at the courthouse building the night before.

Paul Hard, a plaintiff in an Alabama marriage case filed by Southern Poverty Law Center, received on Monday an amended death certificate designating him as surviving spouse of David Fancher, who died nearly four years ago in a car crash.

Hard receives this distinction despite the efforts Fancher’s mother, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief against recognition of her son’s marriage she was next of kin and entitled to any survivor’s benefits.

Not all probate judges have agreed to marry same-sex couples; some have announced they’re refusing to marry all couples, gay or straight, such as those in Marengo County and Pike County. According to an ABC News report, at least 51 of 67 Alabama counties were not issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples despite the federal order.

Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the first day of marriage equality in Alabama was good for many same-sex couples, but acknowledged problems persist.

“There’s a lot of good news today in Alabama, but it’s not all good, at least not yet,” Cohen said. “And I think additional lawsuits are going to be filed.”

In Mobile County, the courthouse remained closed under the jurisdiction of Judge Don Davis, who made no announcement of his intentions. Christine Hernandez, an attorney for plaintiffs in one of the lawsuits, filed papers urging the federal court to find him in contempt of the ruling, but the request was denied the same day on the basis that Davis wasn’t a party to the lawsuit.

At the end of the day, Davis filed a request with the Alabama Supreme Court “seeking guidance and clarification” on the issue. Meanwhile, Hernandez and fellow attorney David Kennedy filed a new complaint, suing Mobile officials for “their willful refusal to comply with this Court’s Orders.”

According to a Tweet from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a couple in Tuscaloosa County was denied a marriage license, and instead was handed a copy of an order from Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore calling on probate judges to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Moore, who was already facing ethics complaints calling for his removal, issued the order Sunday night. At the time, LGBT advocates responded by saying he has no authority to stop the weddings.

Lane Galbraith, who’s transgender and director of the Mobile-based group LGBT Wave of Hope, said he was hoping for arrests of officials that he says are “not following Alabama law.”

“Unfortunately, I feel like these people have been educated wrongly on what the law states, and I think they’re trying to save their jobs based on what they assume is public opinion, but the opinion as of now in the community is that they’re breaking the law,” Galbraith said.

Cohen said he’s hoping the obstructionists are “the last gasp of bigotry” in Alabama and will fade in time as the result of additional litigation.

“I don’t think there’s any going back,” Cohen said. “I think Alabama is moving in fits and starts into the 21st century when it comes to LGBT equality.

The responsibility for the confusion rests of Moore’s shoulders for making public statements about judicial tyranny, Cohen said, adding that’s the reason why he should be removed from office.

“He’s clearly violating … ethics, I think the most important one is his obligation not to undermine the public’s confidence, and when you’re attacking the federal courts, talking about tyranny, and suggesting you’re going to defy the order of the United States Supreme Court, what happens, of course, is you’re undermining the confidence in the judiciary,” Cohen said.

The last official remaining hurdle on whether same-sex marriages would take place in Alabama on Monday was a stay request filed by Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange calling for a hold on the weddings from the U.S. Supreme Court, but justices rejected the stay in an order that morning.

Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican, said in a statement issued shortly thereafter he’s “disappointed” in the federal judge’s decision and hoped for a stay to avoid confusion in Alabama, but wouldn’t take action against probate judges on the marriage issue.

“This issue has created confusion with conflicting direction for Probate Judges in Alabama,” Bentley wrote. “Probate Judges have a unique responsibility in our state, and I support them. I will not take any action against Probate Judges, which would only serve to further complicate this issue. We will follow the rule of law in Alabama, and allow the issue of same sex marriage to be worked out through the proper legal channels.”

Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, blasted Bentley in a statement titled “Is Anyone in Charge in Alabama?” for conjuring the image of disorder.

“This is not exactly a ‘profiles in courage’ moment by Gov. Bentley. When Justice Roy Moore chose to ignore a federal ruling, at least he was willing to own up to it,” Sainz said. “In fact, Gov. Bentley is now just as complicit in kicking up lawlessness and discrimination in his state as Moore. That’s not leadership, it’s political cowardice.”

According to CQ Roll Call, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), an opponent of same-sex marriage, blasted what he said was the “activist judiciary” for bringing gay nuptials to Alabama.

“The attorney general of the state of Alabama has appealed, which I support. And while a number of courts have held the way [the] Alabama court has, others have not, and to me this line of cases … represents an activist judiciary,” Sessions was quoted as saying. “No Congress has ever passed a law or a constitutional amendment that would ever would ever have been thought to have this result.”

“So, I think the proper role of the federal courts is to follow the law as it is, not as they wish it, might wish it to be,” Sessions reportedly continued.

Marriage equality comes to Alabama as the U.S. Supreme Court has elected to take up lawsuits seeking marriage rights for same-sex couples under the expectation that a nationwide ruling on the issue will happen by the end of June.

Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, said the story of the day is couples marrying in Alabama and blamed complications on Moore when asked if problems in the state indicate potential issues when the Supreme Court issues its ruling.

“We will continue to work until all the pieces are in place,” Wolfson said. “But to put even Roy Moore’s lawless gambit in context, contrast it with how pretty much every other state — even ruby-red ones — has followed the law and ushered in the freedom to marry without hiccup or hijackings. And even Roy Moore has conceded that Alabama would be bound by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. His contempt for the Constitution is appalling, but it isn’t appealing to most Americans, most Alabamians, and most officials and will soon be behind us.”

The first day of same-sex in Alabama takes place in the same year as the 50th anniversary of the marches from Selma to Montgomery in the state, a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement that led to the passage of landmark legislation known as the Voting Rights Act.

Much like the civil rights demonstrations 50 years ago, Galbraith said it was “typical Alabama” for obstructionists to block progress in the state.

“There’s always going to somebody that wants to stand on the schoolhouse lawn and, again, by assumption of popular vote, try to fight against equal rights and entitlements, and civil rights, of course,” Galbraith said. “But it’s our purpose to respectfully, and with love, educate people, and we are doing that, and everybody’s taking responsibility for that regardless if they’re naysayers are not.”

Cohen said the coincidence of marriage equality in Alabama arriving amid the 50th anniversary of the Selma march has special meaning.

“The movement from LGBT equality is built on the sacrifices of many, many people that have helped to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice in our country,” Cohen said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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