More than 60 same-sex couples married in Washington County

Benton County won't issue licenses

Posted: May 12, 2014 at 9:53 a.m.
Updated: May 12, 2014 at 4:58 p.m.

A line forms to enter the Washington County Courthouse Monday, May 12, 2014, as same-sex couples wait to file for marriage licenses in Fayetteville.

Tears and cheers were plentiful as Washington County issued its first same-sex marriage licenses Monday, but potential obstacles to the unions in Arkansas remain.

More than 80 same-sex couples married Monday in Fayetteville. A circuit judge overturned the state’s ban on gay marriage Friday. The attorney general is appealing the ruling, however. No licenses were issued in Benton County, where officials said the court decision didn’t apply.

Dozens of people lined up outside the Washington County Clerk’s office by 7:30 a.m., shepherded by security guards as they chatted and embraced. Many held flowers while dabbing tears from their eyes. Cheers erupted as each couple emerged from the office waving the gold-sealed license.

Diana Rister and Amy Grigg were first in line, driving from Morrow at 2:30 a.m. They were on their way to Carroll County, which issued licenses Saturday, when they heard Washington County would be issuing its own.

“We’ve been married 14 years as far as we’re concerned,” Rister said after getting their license. Still, she added, “It feels absolutely great to be validated, and that’s all anybody wants.”

The excitement was infectious even for people who weren’t marrying.

“It’s pretty intense,” said Laura Phillips of Fayetteville with tears in her eyes and a smile. A Unitarian minister, Phillips officiated weddings while wearing her vivid rainbow-striped dress and hot pink tiger-striped glasses. Justices of the Peace Candy Clark, Eva Madison and John Firmin also officiated.

“Wish I’d known this was coming,” said Clark, who represents southeast Fayetteville and married her wife in Maine last year. “I would’ve waited.”

Three-quarters of Arkansas voters approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages in 2004. Twenty couples from Washington, Saline and Pulaski and other counties challenged the state’s ban last year.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza overturned the ban Friday, saying the state had no compelling interest for discrimination.

Opposition to same-sex marriage in Arkansas has fallen since the 2004 vote, following nationwide trends. About half of Arkansans remained opposed in a poll last year by the Human Rights Campaign, which supports same-sex marriage rights.

“I’m not opposed to them having some property rights and other things that usually attend marriage, but I am a one-woman-one-man kind of a guy,” said Tom Lundstrum, justice of the peace for Tontitown. The Bible teaches against same-sex marriage, he added, but also teaches against hatred.

Piazza’s ruling came as marriage rights advocates enjoy legal victories across the country. The District of Columbia and 17 states recognize same-sex marriage.

The U.S. Supreme Court last summer overturned a law banning federal recognition of same-sex marriages. Since then, judges in Oklahoma, Texas and six other states overturned similar bans or ordered their states to recognize same-sex marriages from elsewhere.

Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel is appealing Piazza’s ruling to the Arkansas Supreme Court, despite his personal support for same-sex marriage. He asked the higher court to stop same-sex marriages while it considers the case.

Meanwhile, most counties, including Benton County, aren’t giving out same-sex marriage licenses. Officials say the court decision applies only to the counties where the original case’s plaintiffs live.

Benton County will issue same-sex marriage licenses if either the state Supreme Court orders all counties to do so or someone in Benton County successfully challenges state law again, Benton County attorney George Spence said.

“Either one is likely to take a while,” he added.

Many couples in Fayetteville hurried to marry as a result.

“We just want to get married now,” Roxanne Mixon of Prairie Grove said before marrying Tracey Remington, her girlfriend of 4 years.

“Before they take that chance away again,” added Remington, who took Mixon’s name after their marriage.