Keith Ingram and his partner, Albert Pigg, wanted to be the first same-sex couple to legally marry in the state of Alabama.
They rose early and landed a spot at the head of the line when the Houston County administration building in Dothan opened Feb. 9, but before they could receive a marriage license they got some devastating news: Their local probate judge said he would not give a license to gay couples--or anyone else, for that matter.
"We were devastated when we were not able to get a license that Monday," Ingram told Church & State. "We were so excited that we would finally be able to marry in my hometown. All those happy thoughts were crushed in an instant."
Houston County Probate Judge Patrick Davenport denied Ingram and Pigg a license in response to a directive from Alabama State Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who instructed probate judges not to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples under a peculiar legal theory that probate judges don't have to listen to the state attorney general.
"As independent constitutional officers of the judicial branch of government who are directly elected by the people and shielded from executive influence by Sections 42 and 43 of the Alabama Constitution, the judges of probate are neither beholden to the [Alabama] Attorney General for their offices nor subject to his control in the execution of their duties," Moore wrote Feb. 3.
As a result, probate judges are not required to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, Moore insisted in a legal document.
To observers, Moore's antics looked like simple defiance of a federal court ruling. Same-sex marriage became legal in Alabama in February thanks to a ruling by U.S. District Judge Callie V. Granade.
Granade had earlier struck down a provision added to the Alabama Constitution that banned same-sex unions. Both a federal appeals court and the U.S. Supreme Court later refused to stay that ruling, clearing the way for gay couples in the state to wed.
At first, most Alabama probate judges refused to accept that marriage equality had become a reality deep in the heart of Dixie. With Moore's blessing, at the height of the rebellion as many as 44 of Alabama's 67 counties defied the federal ruling and refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The numbers have fluctuated since then in light of developments.
No one expected marriage equality to be implemented smoothly in Alabama, which some political analysts say is the most conservative state in the nation. But in this case the rebellion was especially significant because of its leader: Roy Moore is a longtime foe of church-state separation and a hardcore Religious Right activist. Groups like Americans United have tangled with Moore in the past.
Americans United quickly geared up for the new fight. Thanks to AU's involvement, three same-sex couples who had been denied the right to wed in three different counties were eventually able to secure marriage licenses. Unfortunately a fourth couple, Ingram and Pigg, were, as this issue of Church & State went to press, still waiting for the news that they will be able to legally marry.
Moore's war began in January with a warning shot. Just four days after Granade's initial decision, Moore encouraged Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley to join him in opposing same-sex marriage, making the bizarre argument that federal court rulings don't apply to Alabama.
"As Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, I will continue to recognize the Alabama Constitution and the will of the people overwhelmingly expressed in the Sanctity of Marriage Amendment," Moore wrote to the governor Jan. 27. "I ask you to continue to uphold and support the Alabama Constitution with respect to marriage, both for the welfare of this state and for our posterity. Be advised that I...