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Ala. Chief Justice Stirs Controversy Before Gay Marriage Becomes Legal


Same-sex couples could start getting married in Alabama as early as this Monday. But the chief justice of Alabama's Supreme Court says not so fast. He says judges in that conservative Southern state don't have to issue marriage licenses to gay couples despite a federal court ruling. NPR's Debbie Elliott has more.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Tori Sisson says she and her partner, Shante Wolfe, plan to pitch a tent outside the Montgomery County Courthouse Sunday night.

TORI SISSON: The goal is to be the beginning of the line.

ELLIOTT: Sisson says they want to be the first black lesbian couple officially wed in Alabama's historic capital city.

SISSON: In Montgomery, down the street from Dexter.

ELLIOTT: As in Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor during the Montgomery bus boycott 60 years ago.

SISSON: We're making this trek that so many people have made for civil rights, for social justice, for equality.

ELLIOTT: Shante Wolfe says the couple, from Tuskegee, has been patiently waiting.

SHANTE WOLFE: We made a promise to ourselves that we wouldn't go anywhere else to get legally married because we work here. We do everything else in the state of Alabama. We shouldn't have the drive 300 or 400 miles just to obtain a license to say that this is real for us.

ELLIOTT: Mobile Federal Judge Callie Granade ruled last month that Alabama's same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional. The state's Sanctity of Marriage Amendment defines marriage as a sacred covenant between one man and one woman and prohibits the recognition of same-sex marriages performed legally elsewhere. This week, a federal appeals court denied Alabama's request to block Granade's ruling. But Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore is telling state probate judges that doesn't matter.

ROY MOORE: They don't have to issue same-sex marriage licenses, and in fact, should not issue same-sex marriage licenses because they're still bound by the Alabama Sanctity of Marriage Amendment.

ELLIOTT: Moore says marriage has long been recognized as a divine institution ordained of God. Moore is known for taking on the federal judiciary. In 2003, he was ousted as chief justice after defying a federal court order to remove a massive 10 Commandments monument from the state judicial building. He's since been reelected. Moore says lower federal courts do not trump state courts.

MOORE: We can't just sit by and let our state court judges be attacked in the jurisdiction of the state, intruded upon by federal court judges who have no power - no authority.

RICHARD COHEN: It's pure and simple demagoguery.

ELLIOTT: Richard Cohen is president of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery.

COHEN: Justice Moore is using the religion issue to further his, you know, public ambition in the same way that George Wallace used the race issue.

ELLIOTT: The group has filed an ethics complaint against Moore. Cohen says judges should beware of Moore's advice.

COHEN: Probate judges are bound by the Constitution of the United States. And Judge Granade has said what the Constitution requires. So if they don't follow Judge Granade's ruling, they're likely to be subject to lawsuits, and, you know, that could be quite expensive for them.

ELLIOTT: In rural Geneva County near the Florida line, Probate Judge Fred Hamic says his county can't afford a legal battle, so come Monday...

FRED HAMIC: I'm going to do exactly what the federal judge's interpretation of the law is.

ELLIOTT: That doesn't mean he thinks it right.

HAMIC: I agree with Judge Moore. I do not think that our laws have changed. It's still the law as far as our law books.

ELLIOTT: Hamic will draw the line when it comes to performing same-sex marriages.

HAMIC: I feel like because of my upbringing that if I participated in the marriage, then I'm leading them into sin.

ELLIOTT: To avoid any conflict, Hamic says he'll stop presiding over any and all marriages. In preparation for the changes coming Monday, he's replacing the county's old marriage license.

HAMIC: Instead of bride and groom - and I'm not going to stop there and ask, you know, somebody, which one's the bride and which one's the groom?

ELLIOTT: The new forms will simply ask for the name and sex of the betrothed. Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.

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