Moral Low Ground

US Government

Gay Marriage Arrives in Bible Belt after Arkansas Judge Strikes Ban

Kristin Seaton and Jennifer Rambo of Ft. Smith were the first to legally marry after Judge Chris Piazza ruled Arkansas' voter-approved same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional. (Photo: Grav Weldon/Flickr)

Kristin Seaton and Jennifer Rambo of Ft. Smith were the first to legally marry after Judge Chris Piazza ruled Arkansas’ voter-approved same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional. (Photo: Grav Weldon/Flickr)

At least 15 marriage licenses were issued to same-sex couples in Arkansas after a county judge in the Bible Belt state ruled its decade-old voter-approved constitutional amendment banning such unions unconstitutional.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza opened the door for same-sex marriages in Arkansas with his Friday ruling declaring the amendment “an unconstitutional attempt to narrow the definition of equality.”

“Arkansas’ marriage laws discriminate against same-sex couples in violation of the (Constitution’s) Equal Protection Clause because they do not advance any conceivable legitimate state interest necessary to support even a rational-basis review,” Piazza said in his decision.

The judge cited Arkansas’ constitution, which states that “all men are created equally free and independent,” and said that the state’s voters had “singled out same-sex couples for the purpose of disparate treatment.”

Piazza cited historic cases, such as the United States v. Windsor, last year’s US Supreme Court decision which struck down a provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court decision that declared bans on interracial marriage unconstitutional.

“It has been over 40 years since Mildred Loving was given the right to marry the person of her choice,” wrote Piazza. “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.”

“Our freedoms are often acquired slowly, but our country has evolved as a beacon of liberty in what is sometimes a dark world,” the judge wrote. “It is time to let that beacon of freedom shine brighter on all our brothers and sisters. We will be stronger for it.”

In addition to striking down the constitutional amendment, Piazza’s ruling also overturned a 1997 state law banning gay marriage.

Following the ruling, rural Carroll County in northwestern Arkansas, home to the relatively liberal resort town of Eureka Springs, began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples who had rushed there to marry.

Jennifer Rambo and her partner Kristin Seaton, a former volleyball star at the University of Arkansas, traveled more than 100 miles (160 km) from Fort Smith to ensure they’d be first in line to receive a license. According to the Associated Press, Rambo and Seaton slept in their car and woke themselves up every half hour to make sure no one was ahead of them in line.

“Thank God,” said Rambo after Carroll County Deputy Clerk Jane Osborn issued her and Seaton their license on Saturday. The couple were married shortly thereafter on a sidewalk outside the courthouse.

“It’s an indescribable feeling, I’m still in shock,” Rambo told KARK after exchanging vows with Seaton, her partner of more than four years. “First ones in Arkansas history!”

“This is making a real impact,” said Robert Lloyd, who married his partner John Schenck. “I see things brighter than I ever have.”

One gay couple, Dick Titus and Zeek Taylor, had waited 42 years for the right to marry each other.

State Attorney General Dustin McDaniel announced that his office would appeal Judge Piazza’s ruling and defend the state’s same-sex marriage ban. Amendment 83 passed with 75 percent voter support in 2004, a statistic often cited by anti-equality advocates.

Judge Piazza dismissed the argument that the ban should be upheld due to its popularity.

“The fact that Amendment 83 was popular with voters does not protect it from constitutional scrutiny,” wrote Piazza, who also scoffed at the popular conservative notion that allowing gays and lesbians to marry somehow harms children.

“The only effects the bans have on children is harming those children of same-sex couples who are denied the protection and stability of parents who are legally married,” his ruling asserted.

Amendment 83 was one of 11 successful state ballot initiatives banning same-sex marriage in the 2004 elections. Some 33 US states have banned such marriages, while 17 states have legalized marriage equality.

In announcing its intention to appeal the ruling, the state attorney general’s office said it “respected the court’s decision.”

“But in keeping with the attorney general’s obligation to defend the state constitution, we will appeal,” Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for McDaniel, told reporters. “We will request that Judge Piazza issue a stay of his ruling so as not to create confusion or uncertainty about the law while the Supreme Court considers the matter.”

In addition to the expected appeal, one state lawmaker suggested that Judge Piazza could face impeachment over the ruling.

Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway) told KARK that he had been contacted by “other legislators who would seek to start impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives against Judge Chris Piazza.”

Many conservatives, especially Christians, were deeply disappointed by Piazza’s ruling.

“The marriage of one man to one woman has been a cornerstone of Western civilization for over a thousands years, and it is simply not right for a judge in Little Rock to pull that foundation from under our society,” Jerry Cox, president of the conservative Christian group Family Counciltold Arkansas News. Family Council was behind the successful effort to get Amendment 83 on the 2004 ballot.

Cox’s ‘historic tradition’ argument was also employed by Christian conservatives throughout the South to defend slavery, Jim Crow segregation and female disenfranchisement during the women’s suffrage movement.

While many anti-equality groups and individuals lamented Piazza’s ruling, LGBT rights advocates hailed the arrival of marriage equality in the Bible Belt.

“This victory is an essential step on the journey toward full equality for all,” said Chad Griffin, president of the national Human Rights Campaign and an Arkansas native.

But the celebration could be short-lived, as same-sex couples in Utah found out the hard way after that state’s Republican governor refused to recognize the marriages of some 1,300 couples who rushed to wed in the wake of a federal judge’s ruling that struck down the deeply Mormon state’s gay marriage ban as unconstitutional.

In Michigan, where a federal appeals court recently stayed a lower federal court’s ruling striking down the state’s constitutional amendment banning gay unions, the marriages of more than 300 couples who were legally wed during the brief period between the ruling and the stay are not currently recognized by state officials either.

Both cases have been appealed to higher courts.

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One Comment

  1. Michael FitzgeraldMay 11, 2014 at 11:59 amReply

    So typical that the homophobic state legislators would resort to impeaching this judge, who has done nothing egregious and who instead has bravely stood up for the equality and freedom of all Americans, including those who are gay. The “Bible-belt” Christians who were responsible for this piece of hateful, bigoted and blatantly discriminatory marriage ban in the first place need to be made to understand that America was founded upon the principle of separation of church and state. That means that I won’t interfere with their right to live their own lives in accordance with their beliefs AND they are not to interfere with or infringe my rights, including the basic human right (as defined by the SCOTUS) to get married to the same-sex person I love.

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