Although the U.S. Supreme Court issued a historic decision Friday, saying same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, not one marriage license was issued to gay or lesbian couples across Louisiana.
The state’s top political leadership declared it wasn’t yet time to comply with the ruling, and local officials fell in line.
This left Louisiana almost alone in total opposition to moving forward with same-sex marriages. Most states that didn’t allow gay marriage before Friday — including Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas and Georgia — agreed to swiftly act on the high court’s ruling. In addition, some counties across Texas and Alabama on Friday began issuing marriage licenses to couples eager to wed.
While a Mississippi official echoed those in Louisiana who resisted immediate implementation of the decision, news reports indicate at least one county issued some licenses.
Holding the line in Louisiana was Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, along with each of the state’s 64 clerks of court who issue marriage licenses. They were joined by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration, which runs one of the agencies responsible for issuing marriage licenses in New Orleans. Three couples who went to the Office of Vital Records to obtain licenses on Friday were denied.
Many clerks throughout the morning, after the decision was issued, said they were waiting for word from Caldwell on how to proceed.
The ruling they eventually received told them they could take their time. In a statement, Caldwell’s office wrote that “it has found nothing in today’s decision that makes the Court’s order effective immediately.”
“The Attorney General’s Office will be watching for the Court to issue a mandate or order making today’s decision final and effective and will issue a statement when that occurs,” the statement noted.
The Louisiana Clerks of Court Association agreed, advising members of a 25-day window for challenging a Supreme Court opinion. Many clerks across the state contacted by The Advocate indicated they would comply with that advice.
It was a stance bemoaned by supporters of same-sex marriage across the state.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Jindal and Caldwell should “stop denying committed, loving couples in Louisiana their constitutional right to marry. They’ve waited long enough.”
Forum for Equality Louisiana also issued a statement calling on clerks and government officials in Louisiana “to accept the Supreme Court decision and immediately begin issuing marriage licenses in their jurisdictions.”
Equality Louisiana, another LGBT rights group, posted Caldwell’s phone number on social media, exhorting followers to call his office and ask him to instruct clerks to begin issuing licenses.
Even state Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, an attorney who helped defend Louisiana’s same-sex marriage ban in court, said the 25-day window is a technicality that was being given undue weight. Worrying about the gap was “a waste of time,” Johnson said, adding, “the Supreme Court has spoken. They’re not going to reverse themselves.”
There were signs by the end of the day that perhaps the wait might not be that long.
In the afternoon, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Health and Hospitals announced the New Orleans Vital Records Office would not issue licenses to the gay couples who had requested them. The Supreme Court decision was not yet in effect, she said.
But by later Friday evening, the Jindal administration issued a new statement, indicating they could move more quickly than the 25-day window cited by the clerks association. Instead, the administration would act once the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which was considering a same-sex marriage case at the same time as the Supreme Court, orders them to comply, which could take anywhere from days to weeks.
“Our agencies will have no choice but to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision when the 5th Circuit Court orders the ruling into effect — even though we disagree with it and believe it was wrongly decided and has nothing to do with the Constitution,” said Mike Reed, the governor’s communications director, in an email.
Both Jindal and Caldwell, who had legally fought attempts to overturn Louisiana’s same-sex marriage ban, decried the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision, saying it stripped state voters of their ability to define marriage.
Jindal, in his third day as an official presidential candidate, issued a statement from Iowa, where he was campaigning.
“The Supreme Court is completely out of control, making laws on their own and has become a public opinion poll instead of a judicial body,” he said. “If we want to save some money, let’s just get rid of the court.”
Caldwell noted that a little over a decade ago, voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman. He said the high court decision “fails to respect traditional marriage as defined by Louisiana voters and is yet another example of the federal government intrusion into what should be a state issue.”
Many clerks across the state said they are preparing to eventually issue marriage licenses to gay couples but are following legal advice to wait.
In St. Bernard Parish, Clerk of Court Randy Nunez, said he is following the clerks association’s recommendation. “I’m ready to issue them,” he said.
An attorney for East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court Doug Welborn said he too will eventually instruct the office to move forward.
Only in New Orleans does a state agency issue marriage licenses. But along with the vital records offices, couples who want to marry can obtain licenses at 2nd City Court in Algiers.
Clerk Darren Lombard, who runs that court’s office, said he received calls but no couples came by. Like other clerks, he is waiting before issuing licenses.
Mississippi was the only other state that largely rebuffed at least some implementation of the Supreme Court opinion. Attorney General Jim Hood indicated that he would wait until the 5th Circuit lifts a stay on a federal judge’s ruling in his state before instructing officials to move forward.
But before Hood’s pronouncement became known to the local clerk in Hattiesburg, three gay couples received licenses and exchanged vows, according to a report by The Hattiesburg American.
In Texas, by contrast, some county officials began issuing licenses, while others opted to wait and seek instruction from the state attorney general. Some Alabama local officials, many who began issuing licenses earlier this year after a federal court ruling but later stopped, also restarted providing them Friday to same-sex couples.
Clerks of court are not typically thrust into the political spotlight, as they were suddenly on Friday.
“I think a lot of them don’t want to rock the boat,” said LSU political science professor Robert Hogan, pointing out that unlike many elected officers, clerks are typically apolitical and seek to appear even-handed by appealing to the chief law enforcement officer of the state.
“They’re just looking for direction; they want to know what they’re supposed to do: ‘Somebody tell me what I’m supposed to do,’ ” he said.
Particularly in conservative parishes, it doesn’t hurt clerks to wait until the last minute to issue the licenses, said Pearson Cross, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette political science professor, especially because all but one clerk, in New Orleans, are running for re-election this year.
The clerks are effectively hanging back and insisting “that someone’s going to have to force them if they’re gonna do it,” said Kenneth Upton Jr., senior counsel with Lambda Legal, the organization representing couples in the challenge to Louisiana’s gay marriage ban.
Upton said he filed a letter Friday morning with the 5th Circuit, formally advising that court of the high court’s ruling and asking it to issue a favorable decision, which would knock the case back down to U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman in New Orleans. Feldman, who last fall upheld the state’s prohibition of gay marriage, would then likely issue a judgment overturning his prior ruling, Upton said.
A federal judge could force a clerk to issue a license if a couple files suit, Upton said, but as of late Friday, it didn’t appear any lawsuit had been filed.
Staff writers Terry Jones, Jaquetta White, Ellyn Couvillion, Amy Wold, Steve Hardy and Heidi Kinchen contributed to this report.