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Alabama Must Obey Federal Decisions on Marriage Equality

Alabama Must Obey Federal Decisions on Marriage Equality

The federal judge who twice struck down Alabama's ban on same-sex marriage today issued another pro-equality decision, granting class action status to all same-sex couples seeking to marry in Alabama, and rebuking state officials who have tried to ignore her earlier rulings. 

U.S. District Judge Callie V.S. Granade, who in January found Alabama's statutory and constitutional bans on marriage equality to violate the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the U.S. Constitution, reaffirmed that all state agencies are bound to abide by her earlier rulings. 

While Granade's 14-page order prohibited state officials from enforcing the state's ban on same-sex marriage, it also included a stay pending the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the marriage cases currently before it. That decision is expected in June, which means the Alabama ruling will not take effect until that time. 

Today's ruling is the latest to add to the complicated state of marriage equality in Alabama. The decision today responds to a March petition from several civil rights groups to recognize all same-sex couples seeking marriage licenses in the state with a class action status. 

That motion, which Granade's decision today granted, came as part of a lawsuit brought by five same-sex couples in Mobile County who had sued over Probate Judge Don Davis’s refusal to issue licenses. In Alabama, probate judges are responsible for issuing marriage licenses. 

Granade's latest ruling directly addressed Davis, who has repeatedly refused to abide by earlier pro-equality rulings, claiming there was legal uncertainty about whether he was bound by the federal judge's decision or by the decision of the Alabama Supreme Court, which intervened in early March and stopped same-sex couples in Alabama from marrying after Granade's original ruling brought marriage equality to the state in February

Davis found support for his defiance of a federal court order in the Alabama Supreme Court's Chief Justice Roy Moore, a staunch marriage equality opponent who had told probate judges not to grant licenses to same-sex couples and claimed the federal judiciary had no authority over marriage in the state.

"Because the issuance of marriage licenses is a purely ministerial act, Judge Davis, Judge Russell and the members of the Defendant Class have only a ministerial interest in issuing marriage licenses and would suffer little if any actual harm from the injunction," writes Granade in today's decision.

The federal judge then effectively shuts down the legal arguments advanced by Davis and the state's attorney general, Luther Strange, who claim that a pro-equality ruling from Granade puts probate judges in conflict with the Alabama Supreme Court, which upheld the state's ban on marriage equality in a separate case brought by several right-wing groups. 

"It is true that if this Court grants the preliminary injunction the probate judges will be faced with complying with either Alabama’s marriage laws that prohibit same-sex marriage as they have been directed by the Alabama Supreme Court or with complying with the United States Constitution as directed by this Court," Granade concedes. "However, the choice should be simple. Under the Supremacy Clause, the laws of the United States are 'the supreme Law of the Land.'"

"It's a shame that it had to come to this,” said Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan in a statement Thursday. "Probate judges, and the Alabama Supreme Court, should have seen the writing on the wall with the federal court’s earlier rulings. It is time for bigotry against same-sex couples to come to an end – in Alabama and elsewhere."

Shannon Minter, legal director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, added that "today's ruling is a powerful affirmation of the rule of law and the founding princiiple of our nation that states may not deny rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution." 

"Judge Granade's ruling is decisive and definitive," said David Dinielli, deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center. "It ends the chaos and confusion that Attorney General Strange and Chief Justice Moore have intentionally caused through their reckless rejection of federal constitutional principles."

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