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Marriage forms get 'Mr., Ms.' revisions

Counties prepare for court’s ruling by Lisa Hammersly | June 21, 2015 at 5:01 a.m.
Image and information about marriage license applications and forms.

"Bride" and "Groom" would be out. So would "Mr." and "Ms."

If the U.S. Supreme Court decides this month that it's unconstitutional for states such as Arkansas to ban same-sex marriage, one immediate issue facing county clerks is revising the traditional, gender-specific language on marriage licenses and application forms.

That's why county clerks' offices have been quietly preparing for the Supreme Court decision, which is expected by the end of this month. If it has the effect of legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, Pulaski County -- and many others across Arkansas -- have software in place to quickly remake the forms.

"Bride" and "Groom" would give way to phrases such as "Spouse 1" and "Spouse 2" on gender-neutral marriage-license applications in Pulaski County. The marriage licenses themselves would delete the titles "Mr." and "Ms." The couples' names would stand alone.

"We're going to abide by the court's order. Whatever the Supreme Court says, that's what we're going to do," Circuit/County Clerk Larry Crane said last week. His office is still talking about exactly what steps might be required.

Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia allow gay couples to wed. Arkansas' constitution and state law ban same-sex marriage. The Arkansas Supreme Court is considering a case that challenges that prohibition and, like the U.S. Supreme Court, could also issue a ruling soon.

Pulaski, Carroll and Washington were the only Arkansas counties that issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples during a six-day period in May 2014 after Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza struck down Arkansas' gay-marriage ban as unconstitutional.

On May 16, 2014, the state Supreme Court stayed Piazza's ruling, and same-sex marriages in Arkansas stopped.

This month, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen ruled that marriage licenses issued before Piazza's order was suspended were valid, and those who hold those licenses are entitled to the same benefits as any other legally married couple in Arkansas, including being able to file joint income tax returns.

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has 30 days from that June 9 ruling to decide whether to appeal, and other state officials said they would await the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on the same-sex marriage issue before deciding what to do regarding Griffen's ruling.

A spokesman for the Association of Arkansas Counties said most county clerks have been working with their software vendors to get ready.

If the nation's highest court allows states to ban same-sex marriage, Arkansans likely won't see much change in marriage-license forms, said county association spokesman Scott Perkins.

But if gay marriage is legalized in all states, the language change across Arkansas counties should be "almost automatic." It should require only "a notification to their vendor ... a very quick adjustment," Perkins said.

County clerks also said they'll rely on the state association, along with their own county attorneys, to interpret any Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage.

In Van Buren, Crawford County Clerk Teresa Armer said she's been working with software vendor Apprentice Information Systems in Rogers to quickly shift to new language. She believes marriage-license applications would label the couple as "Applicant 1" and "Applicant 2." The licenses would identify the couple by name only, without gender-specific honorifics.

Benton County Clerk Tena O'Brien said her office's software is "in place to issue same-sex licenses" if the Supreme Court ruling allows gay marriages.

Faulkner County attorney David Hogue said his county already is changing its marriage licenses to match a law passed by the General Assembly earlier this year.

Current law allows, but does not require, marriage-application forms to dispense with "Mr." and Ms." The new law, Act 1127, sets aside a requirement that county clerks sign the official marriage licenses.

"I'm not a legislator, just a lawyer," Hogue said. "But it's probably an effort to recognize that some county clerks may have personal issues about signing off on same-sex marriage. Now all they have to do is put the seal of the county on it."

The act becomes law July 22.

Even with planning, some decisions won't be made in county clerks' offices until after a high-court ruling.

During the few days that Pulaski County issued gay-marriage licenses last year, for example, it had software in place that allowed couples to choose a traditional male-female marriage license or a gender-neutral one. But county officials haven't decided whether that choice would be appropriate if same-sex marriage is legalized everywhere.

"We've had a number of conversations on the possibility of offering bride and groom language for people who want that, and gender-neutral language for people who want that," Crane said. "We haven't concluded what is the best way. We haven't concluded what might constitute equal treatment.

"Obviously, so far we are not presented with having to go forward," Crane added. "Getting prepared is the prudent thing for us to do. Whatever comes down, we will be ready."

SundayMonday on 06/21/2015

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