MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama’s chief justice built his career on defiance: In 2003, Roy Moore was forced from the bench for disobeying a federal court order to remove a boulder-size Ten Commandments monument from the state courthouse.
On Monday, as Alabama became the 37th state where gays can legally wed, Moore took a defiant stand again, employing the kind of states’ rights language used during the Civil War era and again during the civil rights movement.
He argued that a federal judge’s Jan. 23 ruling striking down the Bible Belt state’s gay-marriage ban was an illegal intrusion on Alabama’s sovereignty. And he demanded the state’s probate judges refuse marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
“It’s my duty to speak up when I see the jurisdiction of our courts being intruded by unlawful federal authority,” the 67-year-old Republican chief justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court said in an interview Monday.
Gay marriage arrived in the Deep South state of Alabama to a mixture of joy, calls for defiance and confusion, as some probate judges indicated they were uncertain whether to issue the licenses after Moore’s directive.
At least seven of Alabama’s 67 counties dispensed marriage licenses to gay couples. Jubilant couples emerged from courthouses in Birmingham and Montgomery to cheers and applause while waving marriage licenses over their heads. Ministers presided at weddings on sidewalks and in parks.
“I figured that we would be the last ones — I mean, they would drag Alabama kicking and screaming to equality,” said Laura Bush, who married Dee Bush in a park outside the courthouse in Birmingham.
Other counties refused to dispense such licenses or shut down their marriage license operations altogether, citing confusion about what the law required.
Moore’s 11th-hour effort to block gay weddings brought immediate comparisons to Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s 1960s vow of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” and his fight against what he portrayed as the tyranny of the federal government.
“Moore is using the religion issue to further his political career, just as Wallace used the race issue to further his,” said Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a major civil rights organization.
Cohen branded Moore the “Ayatollah of Alabama,” and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a judicial complaint against the chief justice, accusing him of trying to incite chaos at the probate courts.
Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican and a Southern Baptist, said he believes strongly that marriage is between one man and one woman, but that the issue should be “worked out through the proper legal channels” and not through defiance of the law.
The governor noted that Alabama is about to be in the spotlight again with the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was passed after civil rights marchers were attacked and beaten in Selma, Alabama — events chronicled in the Oscar-nominated movie “Selma.”
“I don’t want Alabama to be seen as it was 50 years ago when a federal law was defied. I’m not going to do that,” Bentley said. “I’m trying to move this state forward.”
After the Ten Commandments dispute made a national figure out of Moore, he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006 and 2010. In 2012, he was elected to return to the high court. There has been speculation he might make a third run for governor.
He has been one of the state’s most outspoken critics of gay marriage and homosexuality. Moore called homosexuality an “inherent evil” in a 2002 ruling in a child custody case. On the campaign trail in 2012, he said that same-sex marriage would be the “ultimate destruction” of the country.
Late last month, U.S. District Judge Callie Granade ruled that the state’s gay-marriage ban was unconstitutional and — in a later clarifying order — said probate judges have a legal duty under the U.S. Constitution to issue the licenses. On Monday morning, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block the start of gay marriages in Alabama.
Moore bristled at the comparison to Wallace and disputed the notion that same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue.
“This is not about the right of people to be recognized with race or creed or color. This is about same-sex marriage. It is not the same subject,” he said.
“Eighty-one percent of the voters adopted the Alabama Sanctity of Marriage Amendment in the Alabama Constitution. I think they want leaders that will stand up against an unlawful intrusion of their sovereignty, and that’s what we’re seeing.”
Montgomery County Probate Judge Steven L. Reed performed two weddings for gay couples on Monday, including that of two women wearing University of Alabama football T-shirts.
“At the end of the day, I’m going to err on the side of following the order of a federal court, rather than the opinion of the chief justice,” Reed said.
Reeves reported from Birmingham.