LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Gay couples in Arkansas will not be able to get married even though the state Supreme Court upheld a ruling that struck down the ban on same-sex marriage because a separate law that prevents issuing marriage licenses to gays is still valid.
In an unsigned order, the justices refused to put the ruling by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza on hold. Even though they rejected the state's request to suspend the ruling, though, their order will still prevent any other same-sex couples from getting marriage licenses in Arkansas, at least for now.
"In our opinion, it's not that they denied the stay or issued a stay, when they kinda, I guess, kicked the can down the road," said Thomas Baldwin, of Bryant, who married his partner, Devin Rudeseal, on Monday in Little Rock.
Last Friday, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza threw out a 10-year-old ban that voters placed in the state constitution and a separate state law barring same-sex marriages. But he didn't rule on a separate law that regulates the conduct of county clerks, which threatens fines if they issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
"I think it actually makes it a little more muddy," Chris Villines, the executive director of the Association of Arkansas Counties, said Wednesday evening after reviewing the Supreme Court's decision.
The justices, in their decision, offered no direction to the county clerks, who knew before the ruling came out that guidance for clerks was still on the books. They had wanted to know what to do with the conflicting findings: the gay-marriage ban is unconstitutional, but clerks aren't authorized to do anything about it.
"County clerks have been uncertain about their responsibilities and couples unable to know definitively whether their marriage will remain valid," said Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for Attorney General Dustin McDaniel. "A stay issued by either the Supreme Court or Judge Piazza would have brought some certainty. Unfortunately, today's decision did not do that."
After Piazza's decision last Friday, clerks in five counties responded by issuing marriage licenses to gay couples. Through Wednesday evening, 456 gay couples in Arkansas had since received permission to marry, according to an Associated Press canvass of county clerks. Pulaski and Washington counties issued licenses Wednesday, but said after the ruling they would stop.
Couples that already have licenses can still get married.
The state's other 70 counties had not issued licenses to gay couples, with many saying the Supreme Court needed to weigh in.
Lawyers for gay couples said Piazza could fix the problem by simply incorporating broader language when he files a final order.
"I would argue that is implicit in his ruling, but we're going to have to get him to address that," lawyer Jack Wagoner said.
Jason Owens, who represented four counties named as defendants in the gay couples' lawsuit, said the counties were correct to wait for further guidance.
"I think it certainly validates that decision to not issue the licenses because there is still a statute in effect that prohibits that," Owens said.
Pulaski County Clerk Larry Crane, at Little Rock, initially said he would continue to do so Thursday, but changed his mind after talking to the county's lawyer. Washington County clerk Becky Lewallen stopped distribution from her office near the University of Arkansas but intended to talk to other clerks about a way forward.
"It's kind of unfair, the ruling, and we are going to suspend it until we get some clarification," Lewallen said.
Also Wednesday, the high court dismissed McDaniel's initial appeal of Piazza's ruling, saying it was premature because Piazza hadn't issued a final order.
Arkansas voters approved a gay marriage ban by a 3-to-1 margin in 2004, but Piazza's ruling cleared the way for the first same-sex marriages in the Bible Belt.
"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, offered marriage licenses to same-sex couples Saturday, the day after Piazza's ruling, but stopped Monday. Pulaski County, started issuing licenses Monday morning.
McDaniel recently said 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.