Alabama was plunged into chaos Monday, as some counties began to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples for the first time, while others refused despite a ruling from the Supreme Court.
Judges in some Alabama counties started issuing marriage licenses to gay couples when their offices opened on Monday morning. In many other counties, judges refused to grant licenses to same-sex couples, or to any applicants at all, while they awaited word from the courts.
The turmoil began late Sunday night, when Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore released an order telling probate judges not to issue marriage licenses. His order came just hours before two federal court rulings were to take effect that would legalize gay marriage in the state.
Some probate judges had said that they would not marry same-sex couples before Moore's order was released.
The state asked the Supreme Court to issue a stay for one of those rulings, but the justices denied that request Monday morning in a 7-2 ruling. That order cleared the way for the marriages to go forward in one of the nation’s most conservative states.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissented, arguing that the court should have stayed the ruling ahead of four cases they will hear later this year that are likely to decide whether same-sex marriage is legal nationwide.
"I would have shown the people of Alabama the respect they deserve and preserved the status quo while the court resolves this important constitutional question," Thomas wrote.
The question of whether gay marriage is legal in Alabama appears far from settled. At least 50 of the state’s 67 counties were continuing to deny licenses to same-sex couples as of Monday afternoon, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT rights organization.
"I'm not worried about following the U.S. Constitution," Washington County Probate Judge Nick Williams told AL.com about why he decided not to marry gay couples.
Gov. Robert Bentley (R), who is opposed to same-sex marriage, said he would not punish probate judges who issued licenses to gay couples.
“Probate judges have a unique responsibility in our state, and I support them,” Bentley said. “I will not take any action against probate judges, which would only serve to further complicate this issue.”
Reports Monday indicated that same-sex couples who were denied licenses in parts of the state were traveling to other counties in order to get married.
Brandi Ashley and Susan Denham said they were denied licenses in two counties before getting married in Birmingham, Ala., according to AL.com.
"I was angry, because I know that federal law stumps anything in the state," Denham told the website. "It was infuriating."
In Alabama, probate judges are in charge of administering marriage licenses in accordance with the laws of the state. Probate courts have varying authority around the country, but they largely deal with the estates of dead individuals and issues of guardianship.
By Monday evening, at least one lawsuit had been filed by a group of people who had been denied marriage licenses in Mobile County. They asked a federal court to order county officials to issue the licenses.
Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsOvernight Hillicon Valley — Apple issues security update against spyware vulnerability Stanford professors ask DOJ to stop looking for Chinese spies at universities in US Overnight Energy & Environment — Democrats detail clean electricity program MORE (R-Ala.) criticized the lower federal court's ruling striking down Alabama’s gay marriage ban as representative of an "activist judiciary."
"I think it’s an unhealthy trend that judges feel that they’re somehow reflecting popular opinion when, first of all, it’s not popular opinion, and secondly, who are they to be ruling on cases based on how they feel," Sessions told CQ Roll Call.
Vice President Biden, meanwhile, tweeted that he was "proud" to see the couples getting married in Alabama.
Courts across the country have struck down gay marriage bans following a Supreme Court decision in 2013 that overturned the Defense of Marriage Act.
Thirty-six states now recognize gay marriages, with Alabama set to become the 37th.
— Last updated at 7:20 p.m.