Stay denied in gay marriage case, AG appeals to state Supreme Court (Updated)

Editor's note: Story update with information about a legislative resolution filed that calls for Arkansas officials to uphold the ban on same-sex marriage.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza on Thursday (May 15) clarified his May 9 ruling that struck down Arkansas’ ban on same-sex marriage, and he also rejected a request by the Arkansas Attorney General to stay his ruling.

Arkansas voters in 2004 approved Amendment 83 which legally defined marriage as between one man and one woman. The language, which was approved by 74.9% of those voting in the 2004 general election, makes it unconstitutional for the state to recognize or perform same-sex marriages or civil unions. Legal status for unmarried persons which are identical or substantially similar to marital status shall not be valid or recognized in Arkansas, except that the legislature may recognize a common law marriage from another state between a man and a woman.

Piazza’s May 9 ruling also invalidated a 1997 Arkansas law restricting same-sex marriage rights.

“There is no evidence that Defendants, the State or its citizens were harmed by the entry of the Court's original order or that they will be harmed by the clarifications contained within the Final Order and Rule 54(b) certification,” Piazza noted in the ruling he issued Thursday afternoon. “However, the same cannot be said of the Plaintiffs and other same-sex couples who have not been afforded the same measure of human dignity, respect and recognition by this state as their similarly situated, opposite-sex counterparts. A stay would operate to further damage Arkansas families and deprive them of equal access to the rights associated with marriage status in this state.”

A Fox News report indicated that Pulaski County officials planned to issue same-sex marriage licenses after Piazza’s ruling. It is unclear if county clerks in the Northwest Arkansas and Fort Smith areas will do the same. Prior to Thursday and Piazza’s updated ruling, the clerks in Benton, Crawford and Sebastian counties were not issuing licenses.

"I have consulted with Daniel Shue, Sebastian County Prosecuting Attorney, who has advised me with regard to the legalities of this very important matter. The ruling from the Third Division Court of Pulaski County is not binding on my office, and I will await the decision of the Supreme Court of Arkansas,” Sebastian County Clerk Sharon Brooks recently said.

Piazza’s ruling Thursday was followed by a notice from the Arkansas Attorney General’s office to appeal Piazza’s ruling to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Washington County, one of the named defendants in the case in which Piazza ruled, did begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples on May 12. On that Monday, Washington County issued 83 licenses, with 80 of those for same-sex couples.

The Human Rights Campaign, a group active in Arkansas to push for same-sex marriage rights, said Piazza’s ruling should remove any reasons to not issue licenses.

"No procedural obstacle should stand between committed and loving gay and lesbian couples in Arkansas and their constitutional right to marry,” Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said in a statement. “I'm confident that as this case moves forward, the Arkansas Supreme Court will keep faith with the spirit of Judge Piazza's ruling and the fair-minded values that my home state holds dear."

UPDATED INFO: Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, is pushing an interim legislative resolution that seeks to push back against Piazza’s ruling and encourage the Attorney General’s office to “vigorously defend” Amendment 83.

Of the 40 lawmakers who have signed on to the resolution, 15 are Republican State Senators, 20 are GOP House members and 5 are Democratic House members. Speaker-designate Rep. Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, is one of the Republican House members in support of the resolution, according to this report at Talk Business & Politics.

Of those on the resolution filed by Rapert, 12 are House and Senate members from the Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas areas. They are: Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers; Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith; Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette; Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs; Sen. Bruce Holland, R-Greenwood; Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch; Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale; Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville; Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville; Rep. Charlotte Douglas, R-Alma; Rep. Jon Eubanks, Paris; Rep. Justin Harris, R-West Fork.

Rapert’s resolution asks the Arkansas Legislative Council to “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.”

The resolution also notes that “marriage between one man and one woman is the building block upon which our society is based,” and that the “power to regulate marriage is a power reserved to the people that lies within the domain of state legislatures and not with the courts.”

As to Piazza, the resolution notes that his “decision is in direct contradiction to his oath to uphold the Arkansas Constitution and the overall right of the State of Arkansas to declare policy on such matters.”

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Link here to see the resolution.

Also on Thursday, the University of Arkansas system said same-sex couples would be eligible for the system’s medical benefit plan. A memo, first published by Arkansas Times, noted: “... with respect to the University’s medical benefit plan, any same sex couple in Arkansas or married in another state recognizing same sex marriage shall be eligible for coverage under the plan unless the Circuit Court’s decision is stayed by the Arkansas Supreme Court. Same sex couples married in Arkansas before such stay shall be entitled to participate in the University’s plan unless the stay order addresses this issue to the contrary. Eligibility for the University’s other benefits depending upon marital status shall be examined on a case by case basis but it is likely that such benefits would be granted to a same sex married couple.”

Many large companies with operations in Arkansas, including Bentonville-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc., have already opened up their benefit structures to same-sex couples. In August 2013, Wal-Mart officially expanded the parameters of its company benefit package to include spouses of full-time employees and domestic partners. At the time, Wal-Mart Wal-Mart joined a long list of Fortune 500 companies including Costco, Ford, Home Depot and Best Buy to offer health care benefits to same-sex partners. The civil rights group, Human Rights Campaign, estimates 62% of Fortune 500 companies have already done so. HRC said inclusion efforts have increased from 34% in 2002.

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