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In a decision handed at 5:00 p.m. on May 9, 2014, Arkansas circuit judge Chris Piazza invalidated Arkansas' bans on same-sex marriage and the recognition of marriages legally entered into by same-sex couples in other states. The decision came down after county clerks in Arkansas had closed their offices for the weekend, but the judge did not stay his decision. The first marriage licenses were issued to same-sex couples in Eureka Springs, Arkansas on Saturday, May 10, 2014 from one of the few county clerk offices that opened on Saturday. The first legal same-sex marriages in the south were performed shortly thereafter.
Max Brantley reports in the Arkansas Blog that the state is expected to appeal the decision to the Arkansas Supreme Court.
The plaintiffs included twenty same-sex couples, twelve of whom want to marry in Arkansas and eight who were married in other states, but are unable to divorce in Arkansas, be issued birth certificates for their children with the names of both parents, and other rights routinely available to other married couples. The lawsuit challenged both the state constitutional and statutory bans on the recognition of same-sex marriage. Piazza's decision struck down both the statute and constitutional bans.
In his opinion, Judge Piazza found that Arkansas' marriage laws discriminate against same-sex couples in violation of the Equal Protection Clause because they do not advance any conceivable legitimate state interest.
In the decision, Judge Piazza cites the landmark Windsor ruling of June 26, 2013 in which the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, as well as several other recent federal district court rulings also based on Windsor.
After rejecting all the arguments offered by the state in defense of its laws, Judge Piazza concludes movingly by invoking the words of Mildred Loving, one of the plaintiffs in the landmark Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia, which struck down state laws that banned interracial marriage: "It has been over forty years since Mildred Loving was given the right to marry the person of her choice. The hatred and fears have long since vanished and she and her husband lived full lives together; so it will be for the same-sex couples. It is time to let that beacon of freedom shine brighter on all our brothers and sisters. We will be stronger for it."
Judge Piazza's decision in the case of Wright v. Arkansas may be found here.
As Brantley observes, this is the second historic ruling by Piazza related to sexual orientation. In 2010, he struck down a law passed by referendum that prevented same-sex couples from adopting or serving as foster parents. His ruling was upheld in a unanimous decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Judge Piazza wrote then: "Due Process and Equal Protection are not hollow words without substance. They are rights enumerated in our constitution that must not be construed in such a way as to deny or disparage other rights retained by the people."
In response to the marriage ruling of May 9, 2014, Freedom to Marry issued the following statement.
"Today a state circuit judge in Arkansas ruled in favor of the freedom to marry, the latest in a unanimous wave of favorable rulings from more than a dozen state and federal judges across the country in recent months. Judge Piazza held that there is no good reason for discriminating against couples and their loved ones just because they are gay. With nearly 70 marriage cases now making their way through the courts, and five federal appellate courts now hearing arguments and soon to rule, today's decision out of Arkansas underscores that all of America is ready for the freedom to marry."
On the night of May 9, 2014, Arkansas' attorney general requested a stay of Judge Piazza's decision.
However, the judge had not responded to that request by the morning of May 10, when more than a dozen same-sex couples showed up at the Carroll County clerk's office in Eureka Springs. Deputy Clerk Lana Gordon initially turned them away, but another deputy clerk, Jane Osborn, soon intervened and began issuing the licenses.
Several clergy volunteered to officiate marriages as soon as the licenses were issued. The first couple to be wed was Kristin Seaton and Jennifer Rambo. The couple's witness was attorney Cheryl Maples, who filed the Wright v. Arkansas lawsuit last summer and argued it before Judge Piazza. It is believed that 15 couples married on May 10, though several couples were still in line when the clerk's office closed at 1:00 p.m.
Unless a stay of Judge Piazza's ruling is issued before then, dozens of same-sex couples are expected to seek marriage licenses throughout the state on Monday, May 12, 2014. The clerk of Pulaski County, which includes the state's largest city, Little Rock, announced that he would have gender neutral licenses ready by then.
In the clip below, an Arkansas television station reports on the ruling and the marriages.