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Legal Limbo

Married Gay Couples Await Privileges by Allison Carter | November 16, 2014 at 1:30 a.m.
Courtesy Photo Zeek Taylor, left, and Dick Titus

Zeek Taylor appeared overjoyed at the courthouse in Eureka Springs on May 10. In one hand was a 13-page ruling authorizing him to marry. In the other was the hand of his soulmate.

Taylor waited 42 years for the opportunity to marry Dick Titus.

At A Glance

Federal Marriage Benefits

• Claim body of deceased spouse

• Collect on spouse’s retirement benefits, health insurance policy

• Both parents’ names automatically recorded on birth certificate

• File joint state income taxes

• Marital privilege not to testify against spouse

• Divorce

• Inherit automatically

• Gain next-of-kin status

• Take family leave

Source: U.S. General Accounting Office

"It's been a roller coaster of a ride," he said. "But at the end of it really, the only thing that has changed for us is a sense of peace."

Their peace is uncertain. The Arkansas Supreme Court on May 16 stayed the May 9 circuit court ruling allowing same-sex marriages. The marriages stopped, and so did many legal protections for the newlywed couples, which remain in limbo.

The state Supreme Court will hear arguments Thursday in Wright v. Arkansas, the case in which Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza struck down a 1997 ban on same-sex marriage passed by the state Legislature and Amendment 83 to the state constitution, which voters approved in 2004 and gave the Legislature power to determine "the capacity of persons to marry." Seventy-five percent of the voters approved the referendum.

Piazza said the law and amendment violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of due process and equal protection in the 14th Amendment.

Also Thursday, U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker will hear motions from both state and county defendants and plaintiffs in Jernigan v. Crane, a federal court challenge seeking to overturn the 2004 amendment.

Thirty-two states have same-sex marriage, and five states, including Arkansas, await rulings.

For Zeek Taylor, it's personal.

"For the first time, we have a chance for the legal protections that make us the same as any other married couple," he said. "Our marriage license is dated, signed and framed on our wall as a sign of hope that it will not be in limbo, but ours."

First Weddings

Titus and Taylor are still in love after a four-decade affair that began in Memphis, Tenn. The couple moved to Fayetteville in 1975 after Taylor graduated from the Memphis College of Art. They lived in a home together just off a "rat's maze of roads," which was meant to protect the couple from being seen. Titus maintained another home across town to keep up appearances, they said.

The couple moved to Eureka Springs in 1987 and into only one house. No longer hiding, they say they experienced a peace they had yet to feel in their 15 years.

But now in their 60s, they want more. They worry about inheritance, death tax, retirement benefits -- all privileges legally protected through marriage.

Taylor awoke early May 10. He picked out his outfit the night before. He straightened his bow tie, full of excitement. The same could not be said of Titus. He groaned as he was awakened. He didn't care what he wore.

"Zeek walked into the courthouse looking like a man in love," he would say later. "I looked like I was there to pay my taxes."

The two married, but they weren't the first that day.

Jennifer Rambo sat in her Ford Focus all night, stepping out every half-hour to stretch her legs. The Carroll County Courthouse doors would open at 9 a.m., and she would get married.


Kristin Seaton held Rambo's hand. The couple had been engaged only a few months and had been planning an October civil ceremony to wed in their hometown of Fort Smith. Then everything changed.

When they heard of Piazza's ruling, they headed to the only courthouse they knew would be open the next morning. The couple began to see movement at the front steps around 5 a.m., and they planted themselves in front of the doors.

"We didn't know if a stay would be issued that morning, so we wanted to make sure we were near the front of the line so we would be able to get the license," Seaton said.

A deputy county clerk opened the door to the courthouse and refused them entry. She refused to issue a marriage license, fearing she would be fined for issuing an illegal one. Seaton and Rambo retreated to the car and prayed. They began to hear the joyful shouts of the crowd.

Jane Osbourn, Carroll County circuit and county deputy clerk, announced she would begin issuing marriage licenses to the now 15 same-sex couples standing at the doors. Rambo and Seaton received their license first and soon became the first same-sex couple to be married in the South.

The People Have Spoken

Opponents of gay marriage cite statutory and religious reasons to support the ban.

"I think there is a human side of this, but I stand for traditional marriage between one man and one woman," said Rep. Justin Harris, R-West Fork. "But this is a law that the people of Arkansas voted in an overwhelming majority. The law was backed up by a constitutional ban. Some believe the system has changed, but the people have spoken."

The Arkansas Legislative Council urged the state Supreme Court to overturn Piazza's ruling June 20 through a nonbinding resolution, arguing the ruling went against the popular vote.

The council "shall explore legislative remedies to prevent the Arkansas Constitution and the will of the people of this state from being negated by judicial activism, which violates the separation of powers ensured in our form of government," according to the council's website.

The state Supreme Court allowed Bishop Anthony B. Taylor of the Little Rock Catholic Diocese to file a "friend of the court" brief in the appeal of Piazza's ruling. The brief touches on the religious aspect of the law, citing the ability to procreate as the main religious tenant of marriage.

"Marriage was not created by human law, it was created by God," Harris said. "One man, one woman has been the foundation of our families and of our society throughout history. It's a tough issue, but I don't think we should have preferential treatment for the few.

"Ultimately, you cannot separate religion from the law," he said. "Our nation was founded on Judeo/Christian beliefs. Our Constitution was formed on these laws. Religion can't be taken out. It would be sacrilegious to apply the same laws of marriage to a civil union."

Legal Protection

No law in Arkansas specifically forbade marriage between two adults of the same sex for much of the state's history. Historically, Arkansas would recognize any marriage performed outside the state or country, even if illegal in Arkansas, said Cheryl K. Maples, a Searcy lawyer and lead appellees' attorney for Wright v. Arkansas.

Only married couples can enjoy about 1,138 federal protections, including next-of-kin status, automatic inheritance, marital privilege and the right to claim a spouse's body, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office.

Same-sex couples are unable to file joint state tax returns.

"Even with a will and powers of attorney and every legal document we can think of, a family member could come in and dispute our wishes in court," Titus said. "Zeek has been there for every high and low in my life. He should be the one who decides what to do with my body."

Rambo said she whistled all the way to the Social Security office a few weeks later with the thought she and her wife would finally join their names -- or so they hoped. The stay on Piazza's ruling had already been granted, and the women's marriage was in limbo. The federal office refused their paperwork.

But there's more on hold for the couple than their name change. Both expressed a desire for children, a hope that may rest on the fragile legality of their marriage.

"I think mentally, we would still have the hopes and dreams of the children we want to have," Rambo said. "Being legally married would mean those children would be taken care of. They'd have both parents. And the world is changing, so these children will probably have that protection. But 'probably' is a scary word."

During the week after Piazza's ruling, same-sex couples were allowed to alter their children's birth certificates, reflecting the name of both parents on the form. Twenty-two couples did so, according to the state Department of Health.

Except for the week between Piazza's ruling and the stay, gay couples, even if legally married in another state, couldn't record both parents' names on the Arkansas-issued certificate. Children of gay couples were, by law, children of only one parent, Maples said.

By adding their names to the certificate, these parents can now make medical and educational decisions for their children and are offered the legal protection of custody and visitation should the marital status of the couple change.

"It assures the rights beyond death or divorce," she said. "It assures all rights as a parent."

Despite the ongoing back-and-forth, life hasn't changed much for the couples married that week in May, Taylor said. He and Titus awoke May 11 in the same bed they have shared for 42 years.

"We have fought for so many years for our rights that I will be even more determined to continue the fight if the ban is not lifted," Taylor said. "I want it to happen for younger people. Love wins out in the end, and if it doesn't, I'll be in the forefront of the fight until it does."

NW News on 11/16/2014

Print Headline: Legal Limbo


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