A sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court overturned state bans on gay marriage Friday, touching off a rush to the altar in Travis County as surrounding areas adopted a go-slow approach.
Texas Republicans greeted the 5-4 ruling — which required all states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and to legally recognize gay marriages performed in other states — with howls of protest and calls to protect the religious liberty of Texans who oppose gay unions.
Joyous couples, however, streamed into downtown Austin’s courthouse to take advantage of their newly acquired right to marry.
Weddings were performed in courtrooms, corridors and lobby areas as tears flowed, couples embraced and judges stood ready to waive the 72-hour waiting period for marriages. Several ministers and photographers wandered the halls, offering their services at no cost. Strangers served as one another’s witnesses and wedding parties.
“It’s official! We are legal!” Michael Childress exclaimed to a courtroom filled with other couples and supporters.
He said he and his partner, Jeff Jansen, had waited six years for this day. “We are very excited, euphoric,” Childress said.
In her courtroom, District Judge Amy Meachum pronounced Joe Collin Acock, 36, and Shane Parsons, 25, husband and husband, then hopped off the bench to take a picture with the couple, saying it was a big day for her, too.
“This is a proud day for our nation,” she told them. “Thank you for letting me be part of your special moment.”
Deep court divide
Friday’s ruling revealed a deep divide at the U.S. Supreme Court, where Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the court’s four-judge liberal bloc to declare that bans on gay marriage in Texas and other states violate the principles of equal protection and fair treatment under the law, creating a “grave and continuing harm” to families led by same-sex couples.
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family,” Kennedy wrote for the majority. Gay couples “ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
In a sharply worded dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts said “five lawyers” in the majority closed the national debate on gay marriage and inserted their personal vision for marriage.
“This court is not a legislature. Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us. Under the Constitution, judges have power to say what the law is, not what it should be,” Roberts wrote.
“Many people will rejoice at this decision, and I begrudge none their celebration,” he added. “But for those who believe in a government of laws, not of men, the majority’s approach is deeply disheartening.”
‘A joyous day’
Within 90 minutes of Friday morning’s ruling, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir was issuing same-sex marriage licenses — promising to keep her office open late, with extended office hours to continue next week and through the Fourth of July weekend.
“This is a joyous day. I am delighted for all couples who wish to be legally married in Texas,” DeBeauvoir said.
By 7:30 p.m., 61 couples were still waiting in line. County officials expected to issue 314 licenses by the end of the day, most of them to same-sex couples.
Couples who emerged from the office waved their licenses to cheers from the gathered crowd and honks from passing motorists. They also got flowers from Marie Mulling, who said she spent about $115 because “I think everyone deserves flowers on their wedding day.”
On West Fourth Street in downtown Austin on Friday evening, hundreds of revelers gathered for an impromptu rally. Speakers included Austin Democratic state Sen. Kirk Watson, Mayor Steve Adler, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo and a recently married couple.
One block was closed to traffic, and Acevedo said, “This street is yours all night.”
Clerks in Williamson, Hays and Bastrop counties declined to issue same-sex marriage licenses Friday.
Williamson County officials said the county attorney’s office was still reviewing the court’s decision, while Hays County Clerk Liz Gonzalez contacted a vendor to change license applications to reflect an option for gay couples, spokeswoman Laureen Chernow said.
If the state sends out an updated form sooner, Hays County will use that and begin issuing licenses to same-sex couples, Chernow said.
Bastrop County District Attorney Bryan Goertz advised officials not to issue the licenses, arguing that the losing side of a Supreme Court case has three weeks to ask for reconsideration. Constitutional scholars disagreed, saying the ruling has immediate force of law.
Compliance with the ruling was sporadic across Texas, with clerks issuing same-sex marriage licenses in Dallas, Bexar, Tarrant, Midland, McLennan, Cameron, Hidalgo, Nueces and El Paso counties, among others. Harris County, which was awaiting updated licensing forms reflecting same-sex status, began distributing licenses at 3 p.m. on orders from County Attorney Vince Ryan.
The Texas ban on same-sex marriage had been on borrowed time since it was ruled unconstitutional almost 17 months ago by a San Antonio federal judge who said the prohibition demeaned the dignity of gay couples for no legitimate reason.
The judge suspended enforcement of his ruling while Texas appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has not yet acted on the case. In the meantime, other appeals courts have acted, making court-ordered gay marriage a reality in 26 states — joining 11 other states that voluntarily adopted the practice, eight by state legislatures, three by popular vote.
Texas was among only 13 states that still banned the practice, although Alabama’s Supreme Court pre-empted a federal judge’s order by barring county clerks from issuing same-sex marriage licenses. Gay advocates returned to federal court to halt that order.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton called Friday’s ruling flawed and an assault on the U.S. Constitution.
“The impact of this opinion on our society and the familial fabric of our nation will be profound. Far from a victory for anyone, this is instead a dilution of marriage as a societal institution,” Paxton said in a statement.
But Cleopatra DeLeon, an Austin woman who sued to overturn the state ban on same-sex marriage, praised the decision, which will require Texas to recognize her Massachusetts marriage to Nicole Dimetman.
“Our kids will never have to grow up feeling like there’s an asterisk next to our marriage certificate. We are married. Texas has to accept that,” DeLeon said.
President Barack Obama also praised the ruling. “This decision affirms what millions of Americans already believe in their hearts: When all Americans are treated as equal, we are all more free,” he said from the White House.
Additional material from staff writers Claire Osborn, Sean Collins Walsh, Patrick Beach, Jillian Beck and J. David McSwane.
Video: First couple to receive marriage license in Travis County after the Supreme Court’s ruling.