LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — More than a decade after embracing a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage, top Republicans in Arkansas blasted the nation's highest court for deciding such bans were unconstitutional. The GOP backlash included a governor who accused justices of disregarding Arkansans' beliefs and a conservative activist calling the decision "illegitimate."
But it didn't include a call for the state to defy the nation's highest court.
The state's top GOP figures tread carefully in the hours after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide last week, with statements reaffirming their support for such bans but also urging for compliance with an order they opposed.
"While my personal convictions will not change, as governor I recognize the responsibility of the state to follow the direction of the U.S. Supreme Court," Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican who has repeatedly opposed gay marriage, said after the court's decision. "As a result of this ruling, I will direct all state agencies to comply with the decision."
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Republican who was elected after vowing to defend Arkansas' gay marriage ban, likewise urged compliance: "The justices have issued a decision, and that decision must be followed."
The comments are a sign gay marriage opponents aren't eager to openly defy the decision in a state that was once best known for a governor that fought a court-ordered integration of its public schools. It's also a signal that Republicans want to shift the debate away from gay marriage and instead focus on efforts to protect "religious freedom."
The shift is striking in a state where voters in 2004 overwhelmingly supported the amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. The support for banning gay marriage was believed so strong that Arkansas Democrats were slow to follow the lead of their national party leaders, with no statewide elected official backing gay marriage until last year.
Even the head of the conservative group that campaigned for the 2004 amendment stopped short of calling for clerks to disobey the order, saying he expected most would follow the ruling and issue licenses.
"This ruling today creates far more questions than answers, and I think we're going to see a litany of litigation and I think we're going to see a lot of legislation passed to try to sort all this out," said Jerry Cox, president of the Arkansas Family Council. Cox said his group's focus will be on protecting the rights of people who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds.
It could also mean a renewed push by lawmakers hoping to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage or allow states to define marriage. Republican Sen. Jason Rapert mentioned the option of the states pushing for such an amendment under a provision that would force a constitutional convention if 34 states request one.
If that's the case, it means the Legislature could be poised for a reprisal of its fight over the religious objections law that was reworked in the final days of this year's session over concerns that it was anti-gay. It also comes as cities and counties around the state are passing measures in defiance of a state law aimed at preventing local anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
State Democratic leaders also signaled they're ready for a bigger role in that fight, noting that the state's civil rights law doesn't include those protections for LGBT people.
"Today is a milestone for same sex couples and we celebrate with them," State Democratic Party Chairman Vince Insalaco said in a statement. "But it is also crucial to recognize that the job is not finished."
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ademillo
An AP News Analysis