Engaged couples hoping to have their wedding ceremony performed by Limestone County Probate Judge Charles Woodroof should find alternate plans.
Woodroof on Tuesday said his office will no longer perform wedding ceremonies, though the decision won’t impact the issuing of marriage licenses. His decision came the same day a federal appeals court cleared the way for gay marriages to begin Monday in Alabama.
“The law changing is a factor in any decision I make,” Woodroof said when asked if his decision was based on the prospect of marrying homosexual couples.
A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday refused to delay a district judge's decision that overturned Alabama's gay marriage bans. That would appear to pave the way for Alabama to become the 37th state where gays can legally wed.
However, Attorney General Luther Strange asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the weddings until the justices settle the issue nationwide when they take up gay marriage later this year.
“The confusion that has been created by the District Court's ruling could linger for months until the U.S. Supreme Court resolves this issue once and for all,” Strange said.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in April and is expected to issue a ruling by June regarding whether gay couples nationwide have a fundamental right to marry and whether states can ban such unions.
Same-sex weddings in Alabama will begin when a judge's order expires Monday unless the Supreme Court intervenes.
Attorney general opinion
In explaining his reasoning for discontinuing marriage services, Woodroof pointed to an attorney general’s opinion issued in 1982 by then-AG Charlie Graddick and Assistant AG Leura Garrett. The opinion was issued to Bobby Day, former Morgan County probate judge, and states “probate judges are not required as a duty of their office to perform marriage ceremonies.”
Woodroof said, however, he would abide with state law and issue marriage certificates to anyone who qualifies. He’s still unclear about paperwork fixes, as state marriage license forms still have fields for “bride” and “groom.” It’s not clear if the state will issue new forms if same-sex couples are allowed to wed Monday.
“We’ll use the forms we have and issue licenses to the best of our ability,” Woodroof said.
The decision to no longer perform wedding ceremonies will come with a slight cost. Woodroof said his office issued 686 marriage licenses in 2014, and performed 293 wedding ceremonies. That means his office married a little more than 42 percent of all those who applied for licenses.
The probate judge’s office charged couples $15 to perform the ceremony, so that figure adds up to $4,395.
Homosexuality in Limestone County
It’s uncertain how many same-sex Limestone County couples would apply for a marriage license, because there are relatively few same-sex couples, according to Census data.
UCLA’s The Williams Institute reported there were 106 same-sex couples in Limestone County in 2008. That number fell slightly in the institute’s 2010 report to 102 couples.
That number is low compared to Jefferson County, which had 1,428 same-sex couples in 2010 and Mobile County, which had 675 same-sex couples.
Reaction to Tuesday’s ruling
U.S. District Judge Callie Granade on Jan. 23 ruled Alabama's ban was unconstitutional but put a hold on her order until Monday to give the state time to appeal. She refused to lift that order Tuesday — which would effectively allow gay marriages to begin immediately — so that probate courts had time to prepare.
Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, said he was doubtful Alabama could win a reprieve from the Supreme Court. He said the Supreme Court rebuffed a similar request from the Florida attorney general.
Cari Searcy and Kimberly McKeand filed the lawsuit challenging the ban that prevented Alabama from recognizing their California marriage and Searcy as a parent to their son, to whom McKeand gave birth in 2005 with the help of a sperm donor. A local court had rejected Searcy's requests to adopt the boy because the two women were not spouses under Alabama law.
Granade's ruling was the latest in a string of victories for marriage rights advocates in socially conservative states. Judges have struck down bans in the Carolinas, Florida, Mississippi and Arkansas. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has agreed to hear arguments this spring from three more states — South Dakota, Arkansas and Missouri — defending gay marriage bans.
Staunch defenders of the ban in Alabama include Chief Justice Roy Moore, who said last week that state courts are not bound by Granade's order. The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a judicial ethics complaint against Moore over his remarks.
Strange noted Moore's comments in his filing to the Supreme Court.
David Kennedy, a lawyer for Searcy and McKeand, said there should be no problems as long as probate judges follow the law. He said other states, including neighboring Florida, accomplished the transition to allowing same-sex marriages.
“If Florida can do it, I know that Alabama can,” Kennedy said.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.