LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday rejected the state's request to put on hold a ruling that overturned Arkansas' ban on gay marriage, but it appears that unions between same-sex couples in the Bible Belt state may stop anyway.
Justices offered no direction to the state's county clerks, some of whom sought clarity after Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza found the 10-year-old ban unconstitutional last week. The court said simply that a law banning licenses for same-sex couples remains in place.
Even with that law in place, clerks in some counties had issued marriage licenses to more than 450 couples this week after Piazza's ruling. Two counties had been issuing licenses earlier Wednesday. After the court's ruling, Pulaski County — the state's largest and home to the capital, Little Rock — said it would stop.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel went to the Supreme Court Monday complaining that county clerks didn't know whether Piazza's ruling applied to them. While Piazza tossed out the constitutional prohibition and a separate state law barring same-sex marriages, another law regulating the conduct of clerks remained. That law threatened fines if clerks issued licenses to same-sex couples.
If the court had issued a stay, the impact of Piazza's ruling would have been put on hold and gay marriages likely would have stopped. By not issuing a stay, counties still have no firm guidance — just the same knowledge they had before the ruling.
The attorney general's office said it would appeal the judge's decision at the appropriate time.
"County clerks have been uncertain about their responsibilities and couples unable to know definitively whether their marriage will remain valid," spokesman Aaron Sadler said in a statement. "A stay issued by either the Supreme Court or Judge Piazza would have brought some certainty. Unfortunately, today's decision did not do that."
Piazza had ruled last week that a voter-approved gay marriage ban was unconstitutional, but didn't issue a stay. Clerks in five counties — Carroll, Marion, Pulaski, Saline and Washington — issued 456 licenses since then, but only Pulaski and Washington, home to Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas, did so Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Washington County clerk, who was among those seeking clarity from the court, could not be reached Wednesday night.
The other 70 counties did not issue licenses to gay couples, with many saying the Supreme Court needed to weigh in.
The Supreme Court also dismissed McDaniel's appeal of Piazza's ruling, saying it was premature because Piazza hadn't issued a final order.
More than three-quarters of Arkansas voters approved the state's constitutional ban on gay marriage in 2004. In Piazza's ruling, which cleared the way for the first same-sex marriages in the Bible Belt, the judge said the ban violates the rights of same-sex couples.
"This is an unconstitutional attempt to narrow the definition of equality," Piazza wrote. "The exclusion of a minority for no rational reason is a dangerous precedent."
Carroll County, home to the tourist town of Eureka Springs, was the first to offer marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Fifteen licenses were issued the day after Piazza's ruling, but the county stopped handing out the licenses Monday. Pulaski County started issuing licenses Monday morning.
McDaniel recently that he supported gay marriage personally but would still defend the state's ban.
Seventeen other states allow gay marriage. Judges have struck down bans in Idaho, Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Virginia.