BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Alabama's stand against same-sex marriage regained ground Wednesday after the state's highest court ruled that its ban remains legal, despite federal court pressure to begin issuing licenses to gays and lesbians. But advocates said they're not giving up either — and that the justices in Montgomery will find themselves on history's losing side.
The Alabama Supreme Court ordered county probate judges to uphold the state ban pending a final ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which hears arguments in April on whether gay couples nationwide have a fundamental right to marry and whether states can ban such unions.
Stuck between the state's highest court and a series of federal rulings, many probate judges were at a loss early Wednesday. Mobile County, one of the state's largest, initially announced that it wouldn't issue licenses to anyone, straight or gay.
By mid-day, gay rights advocates couldn't find a single county still granting licenses to same-sex couples.
Dean Lanton said he and his partner, Randy Wells, had planned to wed in Birmingham on Aug. 12, the anniversary of their first date, but now might have to get married out of state because of the decision.
"It was a punch in the gut. It was out of the blue," said Lanton, 54. "It's just Alabama politics, deja vu from the 1960s."
Montgomery County Probate Judge Steven Reed, a Democrat and one of the first to issue gay-marriage licenses following a January ruling by U.S. District Judge Callie Granade in Mobile, said he was duty-bound to turn gays and lesbians away again, for now. But he also suggested that he would join a new round of appeals.
"I feel pretty safe in saying we will be filing something with the court," Reed told The Associated Press. "I don't think we'll be at the end of it regardless of what we do, until the (U.S.) Supreme Court rules."
The all-Republican court ruled 7-1 that Alabama's 68 probate judges must stop issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples, despite a ruling by Granade that the ban is unconstitutional.
They gave probate judges five days to respond if they believe otherwise, but speaking out could be politically risky in the deeply conservative state, where Alabama's justices and probate judges must run for office after each term.
Before Tuesday's ruling, 48 of the state's 67 counties were acknowledging that Alabama had become the 37th U.S. state where gays can legally wed, according to the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for gay marriage nationwide. By Wednesday afternoon, the group couldn't find any county issuing licenses to gay and lesbian couples.
Same-sex couples will likely appeal up to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary to block the latest state supreme court ruling, said Ben Cooper, chairman of Equality Alabama. "It's important to understand that this is not nearly the end of this," he said.
Last month, the top court declined to stay Granade's order, with only Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissenting. But the state justices didn't accept that as a warning of eventual defeat.
"The Alabama Supreme Court has now demonstrated a willingness to defy and nullify a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and the federal district court for the southern district of Alabama," said David Kennedy, who represented the couple whose case resulted in Granade's ruling.
The 134-page decision did not explicitly invalidate the marriages of hundreds of same-sex couples in recent weeks, but described their licenses as "purported." It said the state doesn't discriminate because it bans both men and women from marrying people of the same sex. It called this rational, because it encourages ties "between children and their biological parents." It dismissed the argument that anyone in love should be able to wed, saying that if so, polygamy would be legal.
At the Jefferson County Courthouse in Birmingham, where about 200 same-sex couples received wedding licenses the first day they were issued and ministers performed marriage ceremonies in the park outside, probate workers said Wednesday that only opposite-sex licenses were now available.
Two women who came in for a license unaware of the decision were refused, said a worker who spoke on condition of anonymity because she wasn't authorized to release information to the news media.
Alabama has done more than any other state to resist same-sex unions, Human Rights Campaign Legal Director Sarah Warbelow said.
"It really is an outlier at this point," she said. "Most states, when they were instructed by the federal government to issue marriage licenses, have done so quietly and in stride."
But Elmore County Probate Judge John Enslen, who had refused Granade's order, applauded the state's justices on his Facebook page, saying he's "saddened for my nation that the word 'marriage' has been hijacked by couples who cannot procreate."
Chief Justice Roy Moore, who had told probate judges to ignore Granade's initial order, recused himself.
Justice Greg Shaw was alone in full dissent. He called it "unfortunate" that federal courts refused a delay pending a final U.S. Supreme Court ruling, but said his fellow justices have created more confusion by "venturing into unchartered waters."
The Southern Baptist-affiliated Alabama Citizens Action Program and the Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, had asked for Tuesday's ruling, "concerned about the family and the danger that same-sex marriage will have," said Joe Godfrey, executive director of ACAP.
But an attorney for couples who sued said the state justices showed "callous disregard" for their rights.
"Even as nationwide marriage equality is on the horizon, the Alabama Supreme Court is determined to be on the wrong side of history," said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
Tuesday's state high court decision seems to have rebuilt the barrier.
"It's very frustrating. I had done made up my mind we were going to issue the licenses and I thought that was it," said Probate Judge Leon Archer in rural Tallapoosa County, which also stopped issuing marriage licenses to gay couples Wednesday. "And I think that is going to be the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in June."
Associated Press Writer Kim Chandler in Montgomery, Alabama, contributed to this report.