Marriage equality arrived in Arkansas at 4:51 p.m. Friday when Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza filed his ruling striking down both a 2004 constitutional amendment and a 1997 statute that ban same-sex marriage in Arkansas.
He cited, as many other judges have, the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Piazza, who'd invalidated the statute aimed at preventing gay couples for adopting, wrote for the ages, with lofty appeals to higher purpose and law. He concluded by invoking the federal court ruling that ended discrimination in marriage against mixed-race couples:
It has been over forty years since Mildred Loving was given the right to marry the person of her choice. The hatred and fears have long since vanished and she and her husband lived full lives together; so it will be for the same-sex couples. It is time to let that beacon of freedom shine brighter on all our brothers and sisters. We will be stronger for it.
Then all hell and happiness broke loose. Perhaps by design, Piazza filed as the Pulaski County clerk's office closed for the week. That turned attention to Eureka Springs, where the western district clerk's office for Carroll County is open on Saturday morning to accommodate people who flock to the Victorian village in the Ozarks for a weekend wedding.
Carroll County was not one of the six named defendants in the lawsuit. It technically had room to deny applicants. And that was the original decision, to shut down the office entirely rather than plunge into that uncharted water. Eventually, Deputy Clerk Jane Osborn, with an unhappy crowd milling about, stepped in for a recalcitrant deputy and began issuing licenses. By 1 p.m., the office's closing hour, 15 couples had received marriage licenses and promptly had wedding ceremonies. The images of jubilant couples went 'round the world.
By that afternoon, county officials gathered in a conference call monitored by the Arkansas Times to plot strategy for coping with the ruling. In a discussion led in significant part by some lawyers who in their private lives have distinguished themselves in the cause of evangelical Christian activities (the base for strongest anti-gay-marriage sentiment), county clerks got this message: Only the six named defendants had any liability concerns in continuing to refuse same-sex couples and even those counties could claim some minor technicalities as excuses. While Piazza made it clear it was unconstitutional for clerks to deny licenses to same-sex couples, he failed to specifically list all the many Arkansas statutes that refer to marriage as being between a man and woman. A slim reed to deny service, but Lonoke, Saline, White and Conway counties grasped it.
Pulaski Clerk Larry Crane fixed his software to remove gender references (another glitch that many counties wanted to use to resist) and staffed up for the onslaught that appeared on the county's doorstep Monday morning, along with national civil rights leaders and the attorneys, Cheryl Maples and Jack Wagoner, who'd fought for months with an unwieldy lawsuit and dozens of plaintiffs seeking to be married or otherwise legally married couples seeking full rights in Arkansas. Pulaski County issued licenses to 169 same-sex couples on Monday alone. Washington County also accepted same-sex couples and issued licenses to two dozen. Saline County did a handful before again stopping. Carroll County, which made history Saturday, on Monday decided to stop following the guidance of Piazza's ruling. The clerk in tiny Marion County decided on her own to honor the ruling, but then stopped on Tuesday. One license was issued in Yellville on Monday.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel immediately appealed Piazza's ruling. He'll continue to bow to the Republican legislative majority (and, he says, his constitutional duty) to defend a law that he has said he personally disagrees with. He also asked for a stay of the circuit court ruling to avoid confusion while the Arkansas Supreme Court hears the appeal.