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Judicial Chaos Complicates Same-Sex Marriage In Alabama

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In several Alabama cities, same-sex couples did receive marriage licenses, including in Birmingham, Huntsville and Montgomery. But probate judges in most of the state chose to ignore the federal court orders; some even went as far as denying marriage licenses. From member station WBHM in Birmingham, Rachel Lindley reports.

RACHEL LINDLEY, BYLINE: Couples were all smiles as they lined up at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Birmingham on Monday. They were among the first in Alabama to get same-sex marriage licenses.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We would like to take the first 10 couples, and are you number one?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I'm going to give you a head start. Just...

LINDLEY: As couples waited in the hallway, they posed for pictures and talked with family and friends. Erica Brown of Birmingham was with her partner, Deshawn Bey, and their son.

ERICA BROWN: We would have been married six years ago if it was up to us. So we're just happy it's happening.

LINDLEY: James Farless and Steve Davis have waited even longer. They've been together 19 years.

JAMES FARLESS: I placed a bet on it. I placed a bet that Alabama would be the last. And I lost about $50, but I'm glad. That was the best $50 I lost.

STEVE DAVIS: The best bet that I lost, and I'm glad.

LINDLEY: The celebrations here were overshadowed by judicial chaos. Probate judges in three-quarters of the state's counties followed Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore's order not to issue licenses to same-sex couples. Randall Marshall is Alabama legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. He says most judges wanted to follow the law.

RANDALL MARSHALL: But we're sort of thrown into a quandary of, what do I do in the face of the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court telling me to do one thing, and a federal court saying to do another?

LINDLEY: This kind of legal back-and-forth isn't new to Alabama. It once refused to accept voting applications for African-Americans. Most famously, in 1963, Governor George Wallace tried to block school integration. Joseph Smith teaches political science at the University of Alabama. He says this is one more instance of the federal courts dragging the state forward.

JOSEPH SMITH: Everybody knows how this story ends. This story ends with same-sex marriages happening in Alabama.

LINDLEY: In Mobile, the second-biggest county in Alabama, a same-sex couple filed a motion in federal court asking that the county's probate judge be held in contempt for not issuing licenses. Back in Birmingham, Judge Alan King says Moore's order didn't deter him.

ALAN KING: Is this an exciting day for many, many people in the state of Alabama, in particularly in Jefferson County? Yeah, obviously it is. Am I happy for them? You bet you I am. This is about following the law, period.

LINDLEY: Still, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley and State Attorney General Luther Strange expressed disappointment that the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block same-sex marriages.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

LINDLEY: Outside the Birmingham courthouse, supporters cheered as couples emerged, licenses in hand.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Wear this ring.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: As a symbol of our marriage.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: As a symbol of our marriage.

LINDLEY: Jeni Tanner-Jordan was watching the ceremonies and passing out baked goods.

JENI TANNER-JORDAN: They deserve the support. Equality for all, and we want to see them experience equality finally. And that's the way it should be, and we will always stand on the right side of history.

LINDLEY: For now, some Alabama couples who live where they can't get marriage licenses say they plan to go to cities where they can get married. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Lindley in Birmingham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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