Alabama Gay Couples Have Right To Marry, Judge Says — But Not Quite Yet

In a tricky bit of legal footwork, a federal judge ruled Thursday that same-sex couples in Alabama have the right to marry, according to the constitution — but she then put her ruling on hold until the U.S. Supreme Court issues its decision on gay marriage. The landmark SCOTUS ruling is expected before the end of June. U.S. District Judge Callie Granade overturned the state's ban on same-sex marriage in January, with the ruling going into effect in February. Probate judges throughout the state proceeded to issue licenses to couples for three weeks — before they were ordered to stop by the Alabama Supreme Court in March.

The couples then sought out attorneys, who asked Granade for a definitive ruling on the matter, which would make all same-sex Alabama couples seeking to wed a plaintiff class. The class-action lawsuit by the gay couples was seemingly effective. Granade’s statement Thursday granted their request, ruling that Alabama’s same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional. The decision will effectively prevent probate judges from enforcing the ban, but the ruling will only be enforced when the SCOTUS decision is made. Despite that time-lag, David Dinielli, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, called the ruling a definitive victory for gay marriage, according to TIME.

Granade’s statement Thursday made clear the somewhat odd position her decision left Alabama’s probate judges in. They must, in essence, choose between obeying her order, or that of the Alabama Supreme Court. “However, the choice should be simple,” Granade wrote in her 14-page opinion that accompanied the ruling. “Under the Supremacy Clause (of the U.S. Constitution), the laws of the United States are ‘the supreme Law of the Land.’” She added that she had decided to put her ruling on hold to see what SCOTUS determines this summer.

Granade, aware of the dispute over the gay marriage issue that her January ruling had occasioned, made clear that her latest ruling — when enforced — would apply state-wide. “This injunction binds all the officers, agents, servants and employees, and others in active concert or participation with Judge Don Davis, Judge Tim Russell or any of the members of the defendant class who would seek to enforce the marriage laws of Alabama which prohibit or fail to recognize same-sex marriage,” her judgement reads. Davis and Russell had previously attempted to enforce the state’s ban on gay marriage.

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After the legal limbo that the Alabama Supreme Court’s ruling had left gay couples in, the decision is something of a relief. “Judge Granade's ruling is decisive and definitive," Dinielli is reported by CNN as saying. “It ends the chaos and confusion that Attorney General Strange and Chief Justice (Roy) Moore have intentionally caused through their reckless rejection of federal constitutional principles.”

Meanwhile, the attorney general’s office commended Granade’s decision to put the ruling on hold, in what was effectively a backhanded compliment. “We've said from the beginning that the U.S. Supreme Court would have the final say in this matter,” the office stated. “Had Judge Granade heeded our request that she stay her order from the start, we could have avoided a tremendous amount of chaos and confusion. The good news here is that Judge Granade has finally accepted our advice and issued a stay.”

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In her ruling, Granade refers to an “imminent ruling” in the Obergefell v. Hodges SCOTUS case, which will determine whether the Constitution guarantees gay couples the right to marry. The case has so far divided the court, according to The New York Times, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wary of redefining the institution of marriage to include homosexual unions. The court’s proceedings on the matter were not entirely smooth. “You can burn in hell,” one protestor yelled in the courtroom, according to the Times. “It’s an abomination of God.”

Same-sex marriage is currently legal in 37 states and Washington D.C. A recent Washington Post-ABC Poll showed that a groundbreaking 61 percent of Americans now support gay marriage. The SCOTUS ruling, if it recognizes gay marriage as a constitutional right, would reflect this massive change in U.S. public opinion and jurisprudence.

Until then, couples in Alabama will remain in limbo. Heather Fann, an attorney for the plaintiffs, expressed disappointment to AI that Granade’s ruling would not take immediate effect. “Certainly, all same-sex couples, not just our named plaintiffs, are entitled to equal protection under the law, and we would like that to begin yesterday,” she said.

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