When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was legal last Friday morning, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan was determined that Harris County would start following the law of the land by issuing licenses to gay couples as soon as possible, whether the county clerk was ready or not.
Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart had already said that he wasn't going to start following the Supreme Court's ruling until he got the proper forms – which needed the removal of exactly two words, “male” and “female,” to be accurate – from the state. While Stanart's office repeatedly stated on Friday that they were just trying to follow the letter of the law, the move looked like political foot dragging as couples arriving to apply for their licenses were turned away.
But Ryan's office was ready with an opinion from the county attorney to get things rolling as soon as the Supreme Court's decision was announced. He sent a letter to Stanart just after 9 a.m. once he'd read Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion on the case. Reading the decision over, it was impossible to misinterpret what the Supreme Court had intended, Ryan says. “The opinion by Justice Kennedy was so clear and direct it made our opinion, which was already done, easy to send out.”
Ryan's letter advised Stanart that “in light of the opinion issued today in the case of Obergfell vs. Hodges et al, our opinion is that the law requires you immediately begin issuing marriage licenses to all qualified applicants without regard to gender." Stanart could use the old forms until the right forms were issued by the state, Ryan's told the clerk.
Still, Stanart didn't exactly leap on board. Even though he had the letter and other county clerks in the state were simply using the old forms to issue licenses, Stanart insisted that he had to wait to hear from state officials. Stanart even stopped issuing marriage licenses to anyone, a move that actually delighted one same-sex couple waiting in line.
Across Texas county clerks avoided following the court's ruling and blamed the state for not sending out the new applications. But Ryan, a longtime supporter of gay rights, was determined that Harris County, the largest county in the state, would start issuing same-sex marriage licenses as soon as possible.
Ryan was born in Montrose and he represented the neighborhood, the historic heart of the gay community, as a city councilman. “I've been around the epicenter of the gay community in Houston my whole life," Ryan says. "I know that this was a very monumental decision that couldn't have come on a more significant day, so we prepared in advance to do everything we could."
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Dallas County, Bexar County and Travis County all started issuing licenses that morning, but Harris County lagged behind. A couple of hours after Ryan sent Stanart his letter, Ryan announced he was filing a court order to compel Stanart to start giving out marriage licenses immediately. Ryan got ready to file shortly before Ryan's press conference was about to start Stanart told everyone that he was going to begin issuing licenses at 3 p.m. whether he had the right forms or not.
Once Stanart said he was issuing licenses, Ryan and people from his office came downstairs to watch as John LaRue and Hunter Middleton became the first same-sex couple to successfully apply for a marriage license in Harris County. Then 125th District Court Judge Kyle Carter came downstairs and offered to waive the 72-hour waiting period and immediately marry any of the couples that wanted to get it done right then. Ryan and some people from his office went along with a pair that asked Carter to marry them.
“We went up to Judge Carter's courtroom with a couple that had been together for about 15 years I think and he married them. It was very emotional and it was very good to be a part of that,” Ryan says. “Actually seeing the joy in the faces of people joining in matrimony, and finally being able to join with all benefits and responsibilities of the institution, it was just a historic moment, and a great honor to be standing with them when it happened.”
Now, Ryan is looking at other issues that may come out of the Supreme Court's ruling. One question is whether elected officials will be required to perform same-sex marriages. “I've already looked at this and in my opinion an elected official that chooses to perform marriages cannot refuse to perform same-sex marriages under the law. An elected official can refuse to perform any marriages, but we believe that if an elected official performs marriages they should perform marriage ceremonies for all,” Ryan says.