Both by statute and by amendment to its state constitution, Alabama banned marriages of same-sex couples. Several same-sex couples challenged Alabama’s marriage bans in federal district court and obtained a ruling in January 2015 declaring the marriage bans unconstitutional and forbidding the state’s attorney general to enforce them.
Under normal circumstances, that ruling would have sufficed to bring marriage equality to the state. In an unusual move, however, Roy Moore, then Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, issued a memorandum declaring that the state officials responsible for issuing marriage licenses in Alabama fell under his jurisdiction and should not grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The plaintiffs from the initial lawsuit filed an emergency motion and obtained an order from the district court requiring a specific state official to issue their marriage licenses.
A religious-right legal group then seized on the idea underlying Justice Moore’s earlier memorandum, and initiated an unusual proceeding in the Alabama Supreme Court. As a result, in March 2015, Alabama’s Supreme Court issued a ruling directly contradicting the federal district court’s decision. While conceding that the named state official was bound by federal law to comply with the district court’s order, the state Supreme Court forbade other state officials to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
We represented several same-sex couples denied the opportunity to wed in the wake of the Alabama Supreme Court’s ruling. We, along with ACLU, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed motions with the federal district court in March 2015 seeking to certify the case as a class action—a suit brought on behalf of all same-sex couples in the state against all relevant state officials—and requesting an injunction that would override the Alabama Supreme Court’s order.
In May 2015, the court agreed to certify the case as a class action and granted a preliminary injunction requiring state officials to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The court put the preliminary injunction on hold, however, until the Supreme Court issued its impending decision on marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges.
After the Supreme Court handed down its opinion recognizing the right of same-sex couples to wed, the preliminary injunction went into effect, and we moved to make the injunction permanent. In October 2015, the Alabama Attorney General, one of the defendants in the case, moved to have all claims against him dismissed. We opposed this motion, arguing that the court needed to grant a permanent injunction in order to protect the rights of same-sex couples in the future.
In January 2016, Justice Moore issued an administrative order declaring that the state’s “probate judges have a ministerial duty not to issue any marriage license” to same-sex couples—demonstrating the need for a permanent injunction. Additionally, in March 2016, the Alabama Supreme Court dismissed the case that had been brought by the religious-right legal group. In a concurring opinion, Justice Moore argued that this dismissal left intact the court’s earlier orders forbidding issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. He also claimed that state officials are empowered to ignore U.S. Supreme Court opinions, like Obergefell v. Hodges, that violate “divine law.”
In June 2016, the district court agreed with our arguments in opposition to the Attorney General’s motion to dismiss and entered a permanent injunction upholding the rights of same-sex couples to marry. This case is now concluded.