Analysis

Latest Arkansas ruling throws new wrinkle in state’s same-sex marriage debate

Kristin Seaton, center, of Jacksonville, Ark., holds up her marriage license as she leaves the Carroll County Courthouse in Eureka Springs, Ark., with her partner, Jennifer Rambo, left, of Fort Smith, Ark. Saturday, May 10, 2014, in Eureka Springs, Ark. Rambo and Seaton were the first same-sex couple to be granted a marriage license in Eureka Springs after a judge overturned Amendment 83, which banned same-sex marriage in the state of Arkansas.

Kristin Seaton, center, of Jacksonville, Ark., holds up her marriage license as she leaves the Carroll County Courthouse in Eureka Springs, Ark., with her partner, Jennifer Rambo, left, of Fort Smith, Ark. Saturday, May 10, 2014, in Eureka Springs, Ark. Rambo and Seaton were the first same-sex couple to be granted a marriage license in Eureka Springs after a judge overturned Amendment 83, which banned same-sex marriage in the state of Arkansas. Sarah Bentham, AP

Kristin Seaton, center, of Jacksonville, Ark., holds up her marriage license as she leaves the Carroll County Courthouse in Eureka Springs, Ark., with her partner, Jennifer Rambo, left, of Fort Smith, Ark. Saturday, May 10, 2014, in Eureka Springs, Ark. Rambo and Seaton were the first same-sex couple to be granted a marriage license in Eureka Springs after a judge overturned Amendment 83, which banned same-sex marriage in the state of Arkansas.Sarah Bentham, AP

Kristin Seaton, center, of Jacksonville, Ark., holds up her marriage license as she leaves the Carroll County Courthouse in Eureka Springs, Ark., with Jennifer Rambo, left, of Fort Smith, Ark. Saturday, May 10, 2014, in Eureka Springs, Ark. Rambo and Seaton were the first same-sex couple to be granted a marriage license in Eureka Springs after a judge overturned Amendment 83, which banned same-sex marriage in the state of Arkansas.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A judge’s ruling that Arkansas must recognize more than 500 same-sex marriages that were performed in state last year throws a new wrinkle in a legal fight that’s been sitting before the state Supreme Court for more than a year now.

It also offers a preview of the questions the state will face if either the Arkansas or U.S Supreme Court legalize gay marriage later this year.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen’s decision ordering the state to recognize the licenses that were issued to same-sex couples during a weeklong period last year is far more limited and less dramatic than the decision that temporarily legalized gay marriage.

“With shameless disrespect for fundamental fairness and equality, (Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration Director Larry Walther) insists on treating the marriages of same-sex couples who received marriage licenses between May 9 and May 15 as ‘void from inception as a matter of law,'” Griffen wrote in his ruling.

Griffen’s ruling wasn’t much of a surprise. An ordained Baptist minister, Griffen presided over some of the same-sex wedding ceremonies at the courthouse after the marriage ban was struck down last year. Though he didn’t weigh in on the constitutionality of gay marriage, Griffen’s order called the decision striking down the marriage ban “courageous and plainly stated.”

Judge Chris Piazza’s ruling last year striking down the voter-approved gay marriage ban and related state laws created a rush to local courthouses by same-sex couples eager to make their unions official.

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A day before Griffen issued his ruling, attorneys recounted the dizzying days and legal wrangling that followed Piazza’s May 2014 ruling.

“This was definitely a very confusing time,” Assistant Attorney General Colin Jorgensen told Griffen last week.

Griffen’s order is unlikely to create the same level of confusion, since it’s limited to the couples who were married in the window between Piazza’s ruling and the state Supreme Court putting a halt to gay marriages while they considered the state’s appeal.

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