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Wiregrass probate courts split on whether to issue marriage licenses

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Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has declared same-sex marriage legal across the country, probate judges in the Wiregrass will have to determine how to proceed with issuing marriage licenses again.

While several counties aren't issuing them at all at this point, Coffee County is issuing licenses to all couples.

Chief Clerk Susan Carmichael said Coffee County had only been issuing licenses to heterosexual couples up until the Supreme Court's ruling Friday morning.

Henry County is targeting next Wednesday to begin issuing marriage licenses to all couples.

For now, the probate office has temporarily suspended the issuing of licenses due, in part, to heavy tag-related traffic expected Monday and Tuesday.

“The Henry County Probate Office is currently accepting marriage license applications only,” Henry County Probate Judge David Money said. "This will give our limited staff time to review the procedures that must be put into place, including but not limited to, the proper marriage license forms to be used. We intend to abide by all federal and state laws pertaining to the issuance of marriage licenses and hope to be in a position to begin that process on Wednesday, July 1 at 8:30 a.m.”

Dale County is taking a similar path to that of Henry County.

“Based on the recommendation that I received… from the attorney with the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, they are recommending that we immediately begin to accept applications for licenses today from any person, whether same-sex couples or opposite-sex couples, and suspend issuing actual licenses until after 10 a.m. Monday morning,” said Dale County Probate Judge Sharon Michalic. “It’s simply to provide time for the actual opinion to be analyzed and a proper course of action to be determined based on that analysis. We are accepting applications from any persons who would like to apply.”

Michalic said Dale County actually issued three same-sex marriage licenses earlier this year, but suspended issuing them after the Alabama Supreme Court ordered probate judges in March to stop doing so until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the matter.

At least three other Wiregrass counties aren’t issuing licenses to anybody at this time, with judges citing a part of the Alabama State Code that appears to allow some wiggle room for whether probate judges have to issue marriage licenses at all.

Houston County Probate Judge Patrick Davenport had his office stop issuing marriage licenses to anybody back in February, saying he wanted clear instructions from “a court of competent jurisdiction” whether to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

After the Supreme Court's ruling Friday morning, Davenport said the county will continue its current position of not issuing marriage licenses until he has a chance to review the court's ruling.

“Currently Houston County is operating under 30-1-9, which authorizes the discretionary non-issuance of marriage licenses, leaving that discretion to the probate judge to issue or not issue,” Davenport said. “I will continue to do so until I’ve had an opportunity to read and evaluate the Supreme Court ruling. It’s my intention, after evaluating and reading the ruling, that we will implement policies in the Houston County Probate Court that are consistent with law.”

Geneva County Probate Judge Fred Hamic also decided in February to stop issuing marriage licenses to anybody, but then began issuing licenses again in March to heterosexual couples. The ruling Friday prompted Hamic to again stop issuing any marriage licenses.

“I’m waiting for guidance from the state according to section 30-1-9 of the Alabama Code of 1975, which says a probate judge may issue marriage license,” Hamic said. “It doesn’t say a probate judge has to issue a marriage license. I’m waiting on that. I will not be doing anymore ceremonies. I’m going to stop as of today issuing marriage licenses.”

In Pike County, Probate Judge Wes Allen, via an emailed statement, cited the same code as part of his decision to continue not issuing marriage licenses.

“I am saddened that the United States Supreme Court ruled as they did but this ruling does not invalidate Alabama Code Section 30-1-9, which states ‘Marriage licenses may be issued by the judges of probate of the several counties.’ The word ‘may’ provides probate judges with the option of whether or not to engage in the practice of issuing marriage licenses and I have chosen not to perform that function,” he said in the email. “My office discontinued issuing marriage licenses in February and I have no plans to put Pike County back into the marriage business. The policy of my office regarding marriage is no different today than it was yesterday.”

The Barbour County Probate Office didn’t return phone calls Friday.

Chris Munger Countryman, one of the founders of Equality for the Wiregrass, said he had mixed emotions after Friday’s ruling and subsequent announcements from area officials.

“On one side of the coin I’m excited, the community’s excited, we’re all extremely happy that it went through, as well as relieved we finally don’t have to worry about it,” said Countryman, who married his partner earlier this year after getting a license in Coffee County. “A lot of the backlash, though, that we’re getting from the community … we’re distraught at the same time, because we’re seeing a lot of resentment and negativity coming back from the community because of the decision.”

He said he doesn’t foresee more legal wrangling over the issue.

“It’s plain as black and white – you have a federal court that made a decision that affects the entire United States,” Countryman said. “The governor came out with a press release that says he will enforce the law even if he disagrees with the decision. I don’t see where they have any choice in the matter. They have to abide by the law.”

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