EUREKA SPRINGS, Ark. — Gay marriage arrived in the Bible Belt on Saturday, beginning with two women who had traveled overnight to ensure they’d be first in line.
“Thank God,” Jennifer Rambo said after Carroll County Deputy Clerk Jane Osborn issued a marriage license to her and Kristin Seaton, a former volleyball player at the University of Arkansas. The Fort Smith couple wed moments later on a sidewalk near the courthouse; the officiant wore a rainbow-colored dress.
In total, 15 licenses were issued for same-sex couples in northwest Arkansas’ Carroll County, Osborn said.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza paved the way Friday with a ruling that removed a 10-year-old barrier, saying a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly passed by voters in 2004 banning gay marriage was “an unconstitutional attempt to narrow the definition of equality.” Piazza’s ruling also overturned a 1997 state law banning gay marriage.
But because Piazza didn’t issue a stay, Arkansas’ 75 county clerks were left to decide for themselves whether to grant marriage licenses.
Rambo, 26, and Seaton, 27, were the first gay couple to be legally married. They arrived about 2 a.m., slept in a Ford Focus and awoke every half-hour to make sure no one else would take a spot at the head of the line.
As dawn came, no one was certain any clerk would issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple. Initially, deputy clerk Lana Gordon said she wasn’t sure she had the authority and shooed people from her office.
“We just walked out of here crying,” Rambo said.
When Osborn intervened, other same-sex couples let Rambo and Seaton return to their place in line.
“And some of these people here have been waiting 50 years and they still instructed us to come up front,” Rambo said.
Carroll County was believed to be the only county that issued marriage licenses on Saturday. Several were open for early primary election voting but staffers said they were not prepared to issue marriage licenses.
Piazza’s lack of a stay caused confusion among county clerks, Association of Arkansas Counties executive director Chris Villines said.
“The court didn’t give us any time to get the kinks worked out,” Villines said.
Villines said after a conference call with county clerks from around the state he wasn’t sure how many counties would being issuing same-sex marriage licenses Monday. Villines said county officials around the state were dismayed with the timing of Piazza’s decision and that he didn’t stay the ruling.
Jason Owens, an attorney for four of the six counties named in the lawsuit over the gay marriage ban, said he’ll ask Piazza on Monday for guidance on how to proceed.
“My clients want to follow the law. We just want to know what the law is, essentially,” Owens said.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said he would appeal the ruling and asked it be suspended during that process. No appeal had been filed as of Saturday evening.
The U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled that a law forbidding the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages was unconstitutional. Using language similar to that from the Supreme Court, state and federal judges nationwide have struck down other same-sex marriage bans — ruling against bans in Michigan, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Texas, and ordering Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.
Arkansas’ amendment was passed in 2004 with the overwhelming support of Arkansas voters.
Jerry Cox, president of the Arkansas Family Council, which promoted Arkansas’ ban, said Piazza’s decision to not suspend his ruling will create confusion if a stay is issued.
“Are these people married? Are they unmarried?” Cox said. “Judge Piazza did a tremendous disservice to the people of Arkansas by leaving this in limbo.”
Arkansas’ ruling came a week after McDaniel became the first statewide elected official to announce he personally supports gay marriage rights, but would continue to defend the state’s ban in court.
Eureka Springs, an Ozark Mountain town of about 2,000, is known for its arts environment and liberal policies in the otherwise conservative northwest Arkansas — along with a 65-foot-tall statue of Jesus and a play about the last days of his life.
In 2007, the Eureka Springs City Council unanimously approved a proposal to create a domestic partner registry that took effect despite several failed efforts to defeat or outlaw the issue. The partnerships confer no special legal status.
Among those who let Rambo and Seaton back up front were Zeek Taylor, 67, and Dick Titus, 65, who have been together 40 years. Taylor confronted Gordon, the deputy clerk, about closing the office, saying “Your job is to issue marriage license to everyone that’s here.” Gordon said the complaint could be taken up with her boss.
Paul Wank, 80, of Eureka Springs, interrupted the exchange, pointing his black cane at Gordon.
“You don’t have to be hateful sir,” the deputy clerk said.
“You’ve been hateful to people like me for years. So keep up,” Wank said. “You’re doing everything you can to stall.”