Marriage equality arrived in Arkansas at 4:51 p.m. Friday when Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza filed his ruling striking down both a 2004 constitutional amendment and a 1997 statute that ban same-sex marriage in Arkansas.
He cited, as many other judges have, the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Piazza, who’d invalidated the statute aimed at preventing gay couples for adopting, wrote for the ages, with lofty appeals to higher purpose and law. He concluded by invoking the federal court ruling that ended discrimination in marriage against mixed-race couples:
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.
Then all hell and happiness broke loose. Perhaps by design, Piazza filed as the Pulaski County clerk’s office closed for the week. That turned attention to Eureka Springs, where the western district clerk’s office for Carroll County is open on Saturday morning to accommodate people who flock to the Victorian village in the Ozarks for a weekend wedding.
Carroll County was not one of the six named defendants in the lawsuit. It technically had room to deny applicants. And that was the original decision, to shut down the office entirely rather than plunge into that uncharted water. Eventually, Deputy Clerk Jane Osborn, with an unhappy crowd milling about, stepped in for a recalcitrant deputy and began issuing licenses. By 1 p.m., the office’s closing hour, 15 couples had received marriage licenses and promptly had wedding ceremonies. The images of jubilant couples went ’round the world.
By that afternoon, county officials gathered in a conference call monitored by the Arkansas Times to plot strategy for coping with the ruling. In a discussion led in significant part by some lawyers who in their private lives have distinguished themselves in the cause of evangelical Christian activities (the base for strongest anti-gay-marriage sentiment), county clerks got this message: Only the six named defendants had any liability concerns in continuing to refuse same-sex couples and even those counties could claim some minor technicalities as excuses. While Piazza made it clear it was unconstitutional for clerks to deny licenses to same-sex couples, he failed to specifically list all the many Arkansas statutes that refer to marriage as being between a man and woman. A slim reed to deny service, but Lonoke, Saline, White and Conway counties grasped it.
Pulaski Clerk Larry Crane fixed his software to remove gender references (another glitch that many counties wanted to use to resist) and staffed up for the onslaught that appeared on the county’s doorstep Monday morning, along with national civil rights leaders and the attorneys, Cheryl Maples and Jack Wagoner, who’d fought for months with an unwieldy lawsuit and dozens of plaintiffs seeking to be married or otherwise legally married couples seeking full rights in Arkansas. Pulaski County issued licenses to 169 same-sex couples on Monday alone. Washington County also accepted same-sex couples and issued licenses to two dozen. Saline County did a handful before again stopping. Carroll County, which made history Saturday, on Monday decided to stop following the guidance of Piazza’s ruling. The clerk in tiny Marion County decided on her own to honor the ruling, but then stopped on Tuesday. One license was issued in Yellville on Monday.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel immediately appealed Piazza’s ruling. He’ll continue to bow to the Republican legislative majority (and, he says, his constitutional duty) to defend a law that he has said he personally disagrees with. He also asked for a stay of the circuit court ruling to avoid confusion while the Arkansas Supreme Court hears the appeal.
The Supreme Court said it would take arguments on a stay through noon Tuesday. As we went to press, the timing of a decision was unknown. Meanwhile, the interim gave time for same-sex couples to continue to exercise a newfound right.
Will the Supreme Court overturn Piazza? If it does, will those several hundred newlyweds see their new legal rights jerked away? These and many other questions, including political ramifications, lie ahead. But the happy faces of completed families — several of which we profile below — formed yet another brief of its own for changing public opinion. Judges watch TV, too.
Kristin Seaton and Jennifer Rambo
Seaton, 27, and Rambo, 26, of Fort Smith, became the first same-sex couple to be legally married in Arkansas in Eureka Springs on Saturday. So far, married life is “awesome,” Seaton said.
“I feel like we’re stress-free about it all,” Rambo said. “We don’t have to worry about our future family now, or kids. We’re taken care of. We have equal rights. It’s a relief, honestly.”
Seaton and Rambo came to the courthouse in Little Rock on Monday to “support our fellow Arkansans.”
On Saturday, they initially didn’t realize that they were the first legally married same-sex couple in Arkansas, and in the South. “We didn’t even know at first, we thought we were just the first in line [in Eureka Springs],” Seaton said. “It still hasn’t sunk in.”
“I’m still in shock,” Rambo said. “Last night we went home and got a Redbox, turned off the phones and kind of soaked it in for a little bit. It’s a great feeling.”
Seaton and Rambo, who have been together four years, said they were “keeping high hopes” about the future legal battles ahead.
The timing of Judge Piazza’s ruling worked out perfectly for the couple. Seaton proposed in March and they were planning their ceremony for October. “Now it’s going to be the real thing,” Rambo said. “It’s indescribable.”
Seaton proposed while they were hiking in Devil’s Den State Park. “It was actually her birthday weekend, and I had a whole weekend planned for her,” Rambo said. “We stayed in a cabin in Devil’s Den, and she surprised me. It was one of the first places we had went after we met: Yellow Rock Trail. We were climbing up to the top, and the next thing you know, it started raining a little bit. She got down on one knee. It caught me off guard. It was the biggest surprise and the best surprise that’s ever happened to me.”
“I knew it was meant to be when it rained,” Seaton said. “The rain was her and her father’s thing, and her dad had recently passed. Once it started sprinkling, I was like, ‘This is him letting us know he’s here.’ It was bittersweet. It still gives me chills right now, thinking about it.”
Are they going to be together forever?
“Forever and ever,” Rambo said.
“Definitely,” Seaton said. “We’re old-fashioned and traditional about that, believe it or not.”
— David Ramsey and David Koon
Zeek Taylor and Dick Titus
Artist Zeek Taylor and retired electrician Dick Titus, partners for 42 years, had a not-so-funny thing happen on the way to the altar: A Eureka Springs deputy city clerk refused to issue them a marriage license.
Taylor, 67, and Titus, 65, were among dozens of same-sex couples who’d arrived at Eureka’s Carroll County Courthouse before sunup Saturday to get a license (Eureka, marriage capital of Arkansas, alone among Arkansas cities issues marriage licenses from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday to accommodate wedding tourism). But deputy clerk Lana Gordon announced to the crowd from the entry landing that she would not issue same-sex licenses because she had no authority from the county clerk to do so.
Taylor confronted Gordon, showing her Pulaski Circuit Judge Chris Piazza’s Friday ruling and telling her she was now legally required to issue licenses. When she said no, Taylor turned to the crowd and said, “Get in line, we’re going in.” After they entered, Gordon locked herself in her office, Taylor said. “I can’t believe I was such a bad ass,” he said. “I’m an introvert really.” Gordon then summoned Eureka police to the courthouse and officers ushered out the 50 or 60 people there hoping to get the first same-sex licenses in Arkansas.
The disappointed couples, some of them weeping, were headed back to their cars or already gone when the officers reappeared 10 minutes later and told them a different deputy clerk would issue the licenses. Jane Osborn “was so gracious,” Taylor said, “a hero to us all.”
Fearful of later glitches, Taylor and Titus abandoned plans to have a garden wedding back at the house and were married immediately after they got their license — the first issued to a male couple in Arkansas — by former Eureka Springs Mayor Beau Satori in an alcove at the courthouse. After pledging their love — “you shall not walk alone,” they told each other — Taylor and Titus became husband and husband and filed their certificate of marriage with the deputy clerk.
“Even though I am an eternal optimist,” Taylor said, “at my age I was thinking it was not going to happen in my lifetime in any Southern state.” But with the legal challenges before Arkansas courts, Taylor and Titus, who’d been thinking of going to Iowa, “got our hopes up enough that we decided to hold out” to be married in their hometown, among friends.
On Sunday, Taylor said, “We woke up … and sort of laughed. We’ve been together for 42 years. Nothing has changed … except we have been part of a milestone for civil rights. We’ve been part of a movement that stands for love. You know?” Things have changed, however: As legally married, he and Titus now have the same rights heterosexual spouses enjoy, such as the right to visit one another in a hospital, property rights and other benefits. “That has really given us a sense of relief, that we are protected.”
— Leslie Newell Peacock
Susan Barr and Shelly Butler
Susan Barr and Shelly Butler of Dallas were the first same-sex couple to obtain a license at the Pulaski County Courthouse Monday morning, and were eventually the first same-sex couple to be legally married in Pulaski County, once the paperwork was finalized. They’ve been together for 29 years. Butler, who is from Hope, is in a wheelchair. Their entering through the wheelchair-accessible east entrance of the courthouse Monday was a blessing in disguise that landed them at the head of the line. Butler was in Arkansas visiting her mother for the Mother’s Day weekend on Saturday when she heard about Piazza’s ruling. She immediately got in the car, drove to Texas, picked up Barr and some clothes at their home in Dallas — where same-sex marriages are still not recognized — and drove back to Arkansas.
Asked what the word “married” will add to their relationship, given their long, long commitment to one another, Butler said, “Everything. Everything. It’s a long time coming. It’s something we’ve wanted to do for many years, and it’s finally a reality. We couldn’t be happier… I don’t think it’ll necessarily change our relationship other than the official recognition from society. It’s just going to feel correct, I think.”
“It’s nice that kids growing up now won’t have to hide who they are,” Barr replied, looking out at the crowded hallway outside the clerk’s office, teeming with happy, young same-sex couples Monday morning.
“Yes,” Butler said. “They’ll be able to choose the partner of their choice and marry them.”
— David Koon
Randy and Gary Eddy-McCain
“I’m a southern gospel fan, so I can’t think of anything better than ‘I Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now,’ ” said Randy Eddy-McCain, pastor of Open Door Community Church in Sherwood and a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit challenging Arkansas’s ban on same-sex marriage, in a rally organized by the Human Rights Campaign outside the Pulaski County Courthouse on Monday.
“When it comes to marriage, I have a great heritage lived out before me by my parents,” Randy said. “They raised me to respect the institution of marriage. They showed me by example how to do it right. They were together for 54 years before they were parted by my dad’s death in 2000. My parents taught me that you find the person that God has for you and you commit your life to them. You cherish and love that person in the good times and the bad, until death parts you.”
Randy said that he’d found that person in his husband, Gary, who he married in Central Park in 2012. They’ve been a couple since 1991.
“I’ve committed my life to him,” Randy said of Gary. “I cherish him and thank God for this wonderful, rich experience. My parents called this commitment and so do we. I have been made a better citizen, a better follower of Jesus Christ, a better father to our son, and a better man because of the love that I share with Gary.
“Because of Judge Piazza’s right and fair ruling on Friday, mine and Gary’s marriage is a now legal right here in this state where I was born and raised. We are blissfully happy today. I have never been more proud to be an Arkansan.”
— David Ramsey
James Paulus and Christopher Shelton
Shelton, 25, and Paulus, 26, went to high school together in England (Lonoke County), where they still live. They were Boy Scouts together. They reconnected after school and became a couple.
“Seven years together,” Shelton said. “Seven years strong. To the rest of our lives now.”
“This is something we’ve waited a long time for and never thought we’d see in this lifetime,” Paulus said.
Shelton said he hoped that “everybody comes to their senses and realizes that we’re all equal.”
“No matter what the outcome of this case, whether it’s appealed or stayed, it doesn’t matter, we’re married, that’s all that matters,” Paulus said.
Shelton, gripping his marriage certificate and weeping, agreed: “It doesn’t matter what anybody says now, I don’t care. We’re married.”
Paulus said that the marriage showed that “at least someone in the state of Arkansas higher-ups cares about human equality. … We’re all equal and we all deserve the same treatment. That’s what this means.” Paulus and Shelton said that it was very important to be able to wed in their home state. “We just never thought we’d see the day,” Paulus said.
Shane Frazier and Curtis Chatham
Frazier and Chatham have lived in Little Rock for the past 12 years and have been together for 12 and a half. Their 4-year-old son, Cory, was there with them at the courthouse Monday to watch his dads get married, the boy all smiles and wearing a smart little bow tie half the size of the ones sported by his fathers. He came into their lives two years ago. He will grow up in a world where bigotry against gays and lesbians is rapidly drying up and blowing off across the wastes of history, dying off, dying out. His children may well grow up never having heard the slurs against gays their grandfathers surely knew when they were children themselves.
Monday’s lesson for Cory, Frazier said, was to love everyone. “It’s not our place to judge anyone,” Frazier said. “If what you’re doing doesn’t impact or hurt someone else, leave people alone.”
Frazier said he would challenge anyone to show him how his getting married Monday has harmed anyone by sunrise Tuesday. “Tomorrow, when you wake up, ask yourself: Our being married legally and being afforded the rights everyone else has, did it truly change anything for anyone other than us? No one else lost their rights. No marriages failed because of ours succeeding. So I really don’t know what people are afraid of.”
They decided to get legally wed for the protections a marriage certificate will afford them, but Frazier was clearly married to Chatham long before the state issued them a piece of paper. They met through mutual friends and fell in love — the same old story that’s been played out forever among couples both gay and straight. He and Chatham are on their third home together. They’re the beneficiaries of each other’s wills and life insurance policies. They’ve long held a joint bank account. They both wear wedding rings, and have lived through five dogs. Monday night, Cory and his fathers would go home as if nothing had changed. Meals would be cooked. Garbage would be carried out. Plates would be washed and dried. Somebody, Frazier said, would still have to do the laundry. The same as anyone. No one harmed. No one wounded.
“It’s our boring life,” Frazier said. “Our boring life we love.”