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Arkansas high court suspends gay marriage ruling

Published May 16, 2014 8:16 pm

More than 450 same-sex couples received marriage licenses since the judge's decision.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. • Arkansas' highest court halted the distribution of marriage licenses to same-sex couples Friday as it suspended a judge's ruling that struck down the state's same-sex marriage ban.

The state Supreme Court granted a request to put on hold Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza's decision voiding a 2004 constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Piazza struck down the ban last week, and expanded that ruling Thursday to include all state laws preventing gay couples from marrying.

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.

More than 450 same-sex couples received Arkansas marriage licenses since Piazza's ruling last week, but the validity of those licenses remained uncertain. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel and Gov. Mike Beebe have said that's an issue the high court will ultimately have to decide.

McDaniel and four counties named in the lawsuit had asked the high court to suspend Piazza's decision while it's on appeal, saying otherwise it would lead to confusion among Arkansas' 75 counties.

A lawyer for the couples suing over Arkansas' ban said they'd now focus on the appeal before the state Supreme Court and was confident the state's prohibition would ultimately be struck down.

"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. "The court today made the right decision to issue a stay, as other courts across the country have done in similar circumstances."

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.

Friday's ruling came as Democrats in the state Legislature blocked an effort by Republicans to wade into the debate. A resolution calling on the court to uphold the gay marriage ban and invalidate the licenses issued to same-sex couples failed before a legislative panel.