For seven days in May 2014, Arkansas was the only Southern state to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. On May 9, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza ruled in the case M. Kendall Wright, et al. v. State of Arkansas, et al., that the state ban on gay marriages violated Article 2 of the Arkansas Constitution as well as the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
A legislative act in 1997 updated a law against sodomy, in general, to specify same-sex sodomy as a crime, and in 2004, a constitutional amendment defined marriage as only existing between a man and a woman.
“A marriage license is a civil document and is not, nor can it be, based upon any particular faith,” Piazza wrote. “Same-sex couples are a morally disliked minority and the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages is driven by animus rather than a rational basis. This violates the United States Constitution.” He closed his 13-page ruling by predicting that, like opposition to interracial marriage, prejudice against gay marriage would eventually fade.
That week, clerks in Pulaski, Washington, Carroll, Saline and Marion counties issued almost 600 marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Many immediately exchanged vows on the courthouse steps, anticipating that their right to civil marriage might be withheld again at any moment — and it soon was.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, although a supporter of same-sex marriage, said he was duty-bound to appeal the decision to the Arkansas Supreme Court and did. The court suspended Piazza’s ruling May 16 pending that appeal, and clerks stopped issuing same-sex licenses.
In a separate case in November, Arkansas’ ban was again ruled unconstitutional by U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker, but Baker stayed her ruling pending the appeal of Piazza’s decision.
When Piazza issued his ruling, 33 states forbade same-sex marriage, but laws were changing. By summer 2015, only 14 states still did, and cases challenging those laws were making their way toward the U.S. Supreme Court.
As this Page 1 of the June 27, 2015, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported, before Arkansas’ justices decided on the appeal in Wright v. Arkansas, the nation’s highest court struck down state bans on same-sex marriage, nationwide. Ruling 5-4 in Obergefell v. Hodges, a case that originated in Ohio, the justices stated that states lack legitimate reasons to deprive gay couples of the freedom to marry.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge announced that Arkansas would obey the high court. As individuals, both said, they disagreed with the ruling, but they recognized the court’s authority. Rutledge said in a statement, “The justices have issued a decision, and that decision must be followed.”
— Celia Storey
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