By Brendan O'Brien
(Reuters) - Alabama's Supreme Court Chief Justice was suspended on Friday for ordering state probate judges not to grant marriage licenses to gay couples, despite contrary rulings by a federal court and the U.S. Supreme Court.
Chief Justice Roy Moore, an outspoken opponent of same-sex unions, faces possible removal from the bench after the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission charged him with violating the state's judicial ethics laws, according to news website AL.com.
The legality of gay marriage had been at the center of a national debate until the Supreme Court ruled in June that the U.S. Constitution provides same-sex couples the right to marry, handing a historic triumph to the American gay rights movement.
Despite the decision and a federal court ruling that made gay marriage legal in Alabama, Moore in January issued an administrative order to state probate judges that they should not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, according to court documents.
"Chief Justice Moore flagrantly disregarded and abused his authority," the complaint said. "Moore knowingly ordered (probate judges) to commit violations ... knowingly subjecting them to potential prosecution and removal from office."
Moore said in a statement that the commission had no authority over administrative orders or the court's ability to prohibit probate judges from issuing same-sex marriage licenses. "We intend to fight this agenda vigorously and expect to prevail," he said.
Moore wrote in his order that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling was at odds with a decision in March 2015 by the Alabama Supreme Court that instructed probate judges to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The conflicting opinions had resulted in "confusion and uncertainty," Moore said, with many probate judges issuing marriage licenses to gay couples while others refused to do so. [uL1N14R283]
The Human Rights Campaign, the biggest U.S. gay rights organization, hailed the suspension. "Roy Moore is an embarrassment to the state of Alabama,” Eva Walton Kendrick, the group's Alabama state manager, said in a statement.
Moore, a Republican, has been a hero of conservative causes before. In 2003, he was removed from office after a federal judge ruled he was placing himself above the law by refusing to take down a Ten Commandments monument.
He won the chief justice job back in 2012, vowing not to do anything to create further friction with the federal courts.
(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee and Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, N.C.; Editing by Ed Davies/Mark Heinrich)