Moral Low Ground

US Government

Despite Federal Ruling, Alabama Same-Sex Couples Still Denied Marriage Licenses

Kelly Pfannenstiel (R) and Latoria Smith believe it's only a matter of time—and not much time—before they will finally be able to marry. (Facebook)

Latoria Smith (L) and Kelly Pfannenstiel believe it’s only a matter of time—and not much time—before they will finally be able to marry. (Facebook)

A federal judge’s ruling has legalized same-sex marriage in Alabama. The US Supreme Court has slapped down the conservative state’s bid to halt such unions. Yet LGBT couples throughout the Heart of Dixie are still being denied marriage licenses.

While the number of Alabama counties issuing licenses has increased from eight on Monday to at least 19 on Wednesday, the majority of the state’s 67 counties are holding out, most claim while awaiting further legal clarification.

On Wednesday, Moral Low Ground spoke with numerous same-sex couples throughout Alabama who had been denied marriage licenses. During the contact process, it was revealed that several applicants had actually been granted permission to marry.

“The probate judge herself called yesterday and told us she would be issuing licenses to any and all who came into her office, and we were able to get ours this morning,” said Saks resident Melissa Angle, who could finally marry her partner Vicki Miles after six failed attempts to obtain a license in Calhoun County.

“It’s indescribable how elated we are,” added Angle, “to have all of our hard work pay off, and right here in our own county. It’s definitely a big win for us.”

But while some couples were celebrating, others in many parts of the state continued to be denied licenses. In Mobile County, the state’s second most populous, Jim Strawser, who is seeking to marry his partner John Humphrey, sounded frustrated but hopeful.

“The first time we went and were denied was at the end of July,” he said. “We’ve been up there since Monday. We didn’t go today because our lawyers told us to take the day off because tomorrow’s going to be a long day in federal court.”

“Tomorrow we go back to federal court for a new ruling to tell these probate judges how to handle this confusion,” Strawser, 51, added.

Jim Strawser (R) and John Humphery of Mobile are being denied a marriage license. (Facebook)

Jim Strawser (R) and John Humphery of Mobile are being denied a marriage license. (Facebook)

Hopes rose after US District Judge Callie V.S. Granade, who last month struck down the state’s same-sex marriage ban as an unconstitutional violation of LGBT peoples’ rights, announced there will be a Thursday hearing at which it will be determined whether Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis must issue marriage licenses to same-sex applicants. At issue will be the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, under which federal law trumps state law, and its applicability here.

In neighboring Baldwin County, 23-year-old Kelly Pfannenstiel of Gulf Shores said she knows that the long struggle for equality she’s endured with her partner of nine years, Latoria Smith, will soon end triumphantly.

“It doesn’t faze us because it’s inevitable,” Pfannenstiel said of the dramatic dying gasps of marriage inequality. “We’ve waited this long, so it’s not a big deal. We know it’s going to happen.”

But not if Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore has anything do to with it. Moore, who first gained national notoriety in 2003 when he was booted from office for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building, is being compared to former Alabama governor George Wallace, a racist and staunch segregationist who President Lyndon B. Johnson dealt with by sending federal troops to protect civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King, as they marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

“They’re going to look at Judge Moore in the same light as they do George Wallace,” Angle predicted. “People wouldn’t be surprised if Judge Moore stands in the door of the courthouse not letting same-sex couples in.”

In 2012, Moore was returned to the bench by voters in the deeply conservative, profoundly Christian state, where the vast majority supports banning gay marriage. Since his reelection, Moore has publicly called for the United States to be governed as a Christian theocracy. Last Sunday, he ordered the state’s probate judges to violate the Supremacy Clause and refuse issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Moore raised eyebrows and ire yet again by predicting that legalized gay marriage will lead to incest, with “men and their daughters or women and their sons” seeking marriage rights next.

“He’s a complete jackass idiot,” Strawser said of Moore. “Come on, he’s supposed to be such a good Christian, why would a Christian think that?”

DeKalb County Probate Judge Ronnie Osborn, who is not issuing licenses, said disobeying Moore could cost him his job. Moral Low Ground spoke with DeKalb County Probate Court official Michelle Blake, who said the county “will issue marriage licenses” once the court receives “clarification on the laws.”

Blake insisted that DeKalb County “has not denied anyone” a license, but at least one couple there, Kristain Sewell and Heather Guilford, were told they could only file an application at this point.

Baldwin County Probate Judge Tim Russell also said in a phone interview that no same-sex couples have had their marriage license applications denied.

“With the conflicting legal positions expressed by the courts right now, until there’s more direction I will take the applications and hold them. I am not denying any applications,” said Russell. “[I will] take them and hold them until the conflicting court issues are cleared up.”

When asked about the primacy of the Supremacy Clause, Russell only acknowledged that “that’s one of the theories,” adding that Thursday’s hearing will be “very important.” Asked whether his court will begin immediately issuing licenses if instructed to do so by Judge Granade, Russell said, “I’m not going to go that far.”

“We need to wait and read the ruling and then discuss it with my counsel,” he said. “We will study it quickly and make a decision.”

Judge Russell insisted his court has “been very polite” to same-sex couples, even as it continues to stop them from marrying. “We treat everybody the same and we tell them that we are not in a position to issue [licenses] based on legal counsel’s advice.”

“We certainly don’t want to put them in a position that’s damaging to them if their licenses aren’t valid,” the judge explained.

Despite the continuing setbacks, every couple interviewed for this article said strong support from family, friends, and community are buoying their spirits, a stark contrast to the stereotypically bigoted Alabaman envisioned by outside observers with little or no personal experience in the state.

“There are a few hateful things being said, but all the kindness from family, and even strangers, trumps all of that,” said Pfannenstiel.

“Overwhelmingly, we’ve received so much support, not only from gay people but also from straight people, elderly people, young, old, black, white—everyone has really stepped up and supported not only us, but the entire issue of same-sex marriage,” added Angle.

“We have got so many supporters. My mom has stood behind us, my niece, our church—Cornerstone Metropolitan Community Church— have all been great,” Strawser concurred.

There is definitely a sense of inevitability among the couples interviewed on Wednesday. Some expressed their joy and disbelief that Alabama has made it this far, and won’t be the last state to achieve LGBT marriage equality.

“I was dumbfounded that it actually happened here and we were not the last ones,” said Angle, who had this advice for couples still being denied equality: “Tell those in Fort Payne [DeKalb Co.] to keep their heads up, and let them know that we’re still fighting for their rights too.”

Eleanor Shue of Hunstville, who along with her partner Jessica White were among the first couples to marry in the state, told Moral Low Ground that her “heart is with” those who still cannot marry.

“Keep up what you’re doing,” encouraged Shue. “Hopefully within the next few days you will be getting married. It’s sad because it should be all of Alabama… In the end, all of the counties here will follow the federal ruling.”

Shue doesn’t believe couples will have to wait until the US Supreme Court takes up the issue of same-sex marriage in April.

“I guarantee that all of the 13 states which haven’t legalized will have done so by then,” she predicted.

“Tomorrow’s our day. Hold strong,” Strawser urged the other Alabama couples who are still waiting to be treated as equal citizens under the law.

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