LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — A judge ordered Arkansas officials on Tuesday to recognize more than 500 same-sex marriages performed in the state last year, a move that will let the couples enjoy a host of benefits such as filing taxes jointly and enrolling together in state health insurance plans.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen validated marriage licenses that were issued to same-sex couples after another judge struck down the state's gay marriage ban. The state Supreme Court halted the distribution of marriage licenses to gay couples after a week in May 2014 and is considering the appeal over a voter-approved same-sex marriage ban.
"With shameless disrespect for fundamental fairness and equality, (Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration Director Larry Walther) insists on treating the marriages of same-sex couples who received marriage licenses between May 9 and May 15 as 'void from inception as a matter of law,'" Griffen wrote in his ruling.
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Republican who has vowed to defend the state's gay marriage ban, did not say whether she would seek a stay of Griffen's ruling.
"These marriages do not fall within the state's definition of marriage as between one man and one woman," Rutledge said. "I am evaluating the ruling and will determine the best path forward to protect the state's interest."
Some same-sex couples who married in Arkansas last year sued in February, alleging the state was violating their rights by not recognizing the unions. Griffen's ruling means the couples can file taxes jointly, appear jointly on a child's birth certificate, enroll together on state health insurance plans and even file for divorce.
Cheryl Maples, an attorney for the two couples who sued the state over the licenses, said she was thrilled with the decision.
"They finally got some major progress they've been waiting so long for," Maples said. "They've been married over a year now and as of right now they're really married."
Griffen was among a number of people who presided over same-sex marriage ceremonies in May 2014.
The ruling comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is nearing a decision on whether to legalize gay marriage nationwide. Judges across the country have ruled against bans similar to Arkansas' since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of a federal anti-gay marriage law in June 2013. Gay marriage is now legal in more than half of U.S. states.
The Arkansas Supreme Court hasn't indicated when it will rule on gay marriage. Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza struck down as unconstitutional a 2004 voter-approved same-sex marriage ban and an earlier state law defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Justices suspended his decision a week later, halting the marriages.
Justices last month denied the state's request for new oral arguments in the case and declined to lift their stay on Piazza's decision.
The attorney general's office argued before Griffen Monday that the marriages weren't valid because Piazza's initial ruling didn't specifically strike down a state law barring clerks from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Piazza struck down that law in a subsequent ruling six days later.
Griffen rejected that argument, saying it was clear that Piazza meant to strike down any prohibition on same-sex marriage.
"Put simply, Judge Piazza's intent in his May 9 order was to stop the state of Arkansas from prohibiting same-sex couples from being married," he wrote.
Angelia Frazier-Henson said Griffen's ruling provides some certainty for her and her wife, Kathy Henson, who were one of two couples who sued for the recognition. The two have delayed having a wedding ceremony with family and friends and have filed for extensions for their tax returns over the uncertainty about their licenses.
"There's no question about whether or not we're married, and there's no words for that," she said.
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