For 72 hours after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Friday that same-sex couples could not be denied the right to marry, it seemed that ruling might apply everywhere in the country but Louisiana.
With waters muddied by Gov. Bobby Jindal, Attorney General Buddy Caldwell and a state association representing clerks of court — all of whom attempted to delay the issuance of the state’s first license for a same-sex marriage — gay couples were left treading in place, residents of the only state that still had not seen a single such marriage recognized.
The logjam first cracked Monday morning in one of the least likely of places, as Jon Gegenheimer, the clerk of court in conservative Jefferson Parish, announced he would be handing out licenses, starting with two women in his office who had been together for 38 years.
What followed was a tumultuous flood. By the end of the day, clerks of court in at least 40 parishes across the state had jumped on board, dragging their association with them, even as challenges with technology and confusion over how to proceed led to fits and starts.
“All my life, I never thought I’d be able to get married, and now I can,” said Lucas Gilley, who received Jefferson Parish’s third same-sex marriage license, to wed Brandon Moreau.
“It’s kind of a thrill to walk into a clerk of court office and get a marriage license, especially being a same-sex couple,” Moreau said. “And in the South.”
Despite New Orleans’ reputation as the most liberal and gay-friendly city in the state, its marriage license office is run by the state and was following Jindal’s directive to delay. But a workaround using a West Bank city judge may allow same-sex couples to get licenses anyway.
There is no full count of the number of gay couples who received licenses in Louisiana on Monday, though a sampling of parishes suggests the number was low. Jefferson Parish officials signed off on the marriages of 11 same-sex couples, the largest number in the New Orleans metropolitan area.
But even as locals jumped on board, state officials remain firmly committed to blocking gay marriage, leaving a tension between the locally elected and independent clerks of court who hand out licenses and the administration responsible for enrolling and overseeing them.
Jindal pledged to defend any clerks who refuse to issue licenses on religious grounds and continued to order state agencies not to recognize same-sex marriages.
A memo from Jindal’s chief legal adviser, Thomas Enright, said no official in the state could be compelled to issue a license that violated his or her religious beliefs.
Jindal and Caldwell also have cited a 25-day period in which a Supreme Court decision can be appealed, and the administration has said it will not allow any changes to the state’s marriage laws until ordered by a court.
That order could be coming, but it may be at least a few days off.
A same-sex marriage case involving two Louisiana men who married in another state and sued to get recognition at home is pending before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. It’s the judges in that case who likely will issue the order that will end the state’s intransigence.
When that order comes is anyone’s guess. Both sides have been asked to brief the court on how they think the case should proceed, with responses due by Wednesday.
“Our lawyers think we’re in the position of asking the 5th Circuit to rule,” said Derek Penton-Robicheaux, one of the plaintiffs. That would prevent a potential delay caused by sending the case back to U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman, of New Orleans, who originally heard the case and dismissed it, refusing to order the state to recognize the out-of-state marriage.
The timeline for a response from the court is unclear, but Penton-Robicheaux said he hoped it would be quick.
“It’s going to be exciting to see,” he said. “We’re hoping this has to stop now. They’ve had enough time to get things in order; they’ve had a couple of days,” he said.
Until then, however, same-sex marriage still exists in something of a gray area in Louisiana.
For now, the state Office of Vital Records will not record any marriages except those between a man and a woman, though the consequences of that decision are unclear, with officials saying they are abiding by a state constitutional amendment — invalidated by the Supreme Court’s decision — that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
The effects of that position are unclear, and the state Department of Health and Hospitals, which oversees the office, said it would be up to Caldwell to determine whether there would be any fallout.
Caldwell, who many officials had hoped would provide them with guidance, and his communications staff did not respond to calls from the media on Monday, only issuing a statement urging locals to wait for further action from the courts.
That drew criticism from former Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry, who has attacked Caldwell from the right in a bid to unseat him in the coming election.
“This is a continual encroachment on the rights of the states,” Landry said of the court’s decision last week. “I would have been better prepared. … We would have contemplated a plan to provide real-time legal advice.”
While state officials continued to stand in opposition to the law, the situation on the ground shifted far more quickly as many parish clerks opened up their offices to same-sex couples.
Some, as in St. Charles Parish and St. Bernard Parish, cited the example of their colleague in Jefferson.
Others, like officials in St. John the Baptist Parish, had a change of heart after the executive director of the Louisiana Clerks of Court Association — which had told its members Friday to hold off on issuing any licenses to gay couples — reversed course in the early afternoon.
That came after several of its members already had started issuing licenses. The new recommendation came because differing interpretations could “create confusion,” an email from the group said.
Orleans Parish presented a particularly confused case. Under state law, it is the only parish where the Office of Vital Records and not an independently elected clerk is directly in charge of granting marriage licenses.
While the law also allowed for some judges to issue the paperwork, the judges of the 1st City Court on the east bank always had delegated that task to the state even if they officiated over the actual ceremonies — a symbiotic relationship that only caused problems once the two were put into conflict.
Judges began working to set up the systems they would need to issue marriage licenses but found they not only couldn’t gain access to the statewide records system but didn’t even have licenses, court officials said.
But it turned out that their counterpart on the parish’s West Bank already was waiting for any couples who might show up. In Algiers, where the Vital Records Office wasn’t available, 2nd City Court Judge Teena Anderson-Trahan had been routinely marrying opposite-sex couples for years, Civil District Court Chief Judge Kern Reese said.
And with the Supreme Court’s ruling, she was prepared to offer those services to gay couples, as well.
But unheralded and unadvertised, Anderson-Trahan received a visit from only one same-sex pair on Monday — and they didn’t have the paperwork needed to complete the process, Civil District Court spokesman Walt Pierce said.
For now, the east bank court is stymied by the procedural issues involved in issuing marriage licenses, but Anderson-Trahan will continue to do so, Reese said.
Asked about the controversies surrounding the early days of same-sex marriage in the state, Reese demurred, noting that he could be called upon to preside over a hearing dealing with those issues. But, he said, public officials are charged with legal responsibilities they are required to fulfill.
“All of us, every single elected official in this state, took an oath to support the constitution and laws of the United States and the constitution and laws of Louisiana,” Reese said. “When called upon, that’s what we’re supposed to do. You don’t get to pick and choose which laws you want to follow.”
There remained holdouts. A deputy clerk of court in East Carroll Parish said the office had been told there was a waiting period and that nothing would change for the rest of the day because the clerk of court was out of the office.
In Morehouse Parish in the northeast part of the state, the clerk said there would be no action until the state Supreme Court weighed in on the issue and that changing computer systems to handle same-sex couples could prove difficult for a sparsely populated community.
When Franklin Parish Clerk of Court Ann Johnson was asked whether her office was prepared to issue same-sex marriage licenses Monday, she replied, “No comment,” and hung up.
Advocate staff writers Ramon Antonio Vargas, Mark Ballard, Chad Calder, Maya Lau, Richard Thompson, Jaquetta White and Amy Wold contributed to this story. Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.