UPDATED Gay Marriage Has Finally Hit Texas (Sort of)
Sarah Goodfriend and Suzanne Bryant exchange vows outside the Travis County Clerk's Office
Update 4:15 p.m.: Attorney General Ken Paxton isn't too happy Texas saw its first legal gay marriage this morning. Upon receiving the news that Sarah Goodfriend and Suzanne Bryant obtained a marriage license and exchanged vows at the Travis County Clerk's Office, Paxton got the state Supreme Court to block any more same-sex marriages from happening in Travis County, at least for the time being. Paxton has even asked the court to void Goodfriend and Bryant's marriage (apparently one Texas gay marriage is one too many for Ken Paxton).
Paxton said in a statement: "The law of Texas has not changed, and will not change due to the whims of any individual judge or county clerk operating on their own capacity anywhere in Texas. Activist judges don't change Texas law and we will continue to aggressively defend the laws of our state and will ensure that any licenses issued contrary to law are invalid."
The Texas Tribune reports that Travis County issued this morning's marriage license under "special circumstances," saying one of the women has "severe and immediate health concerns."
"I want to finally be able to marry the love of my life," Goodfriend said in a statement issued Thursday. "In May, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and was rushed into emergency surgery. Having faced a life-threatening disease I realized time is precious and that I wanted to spend it on the things that mattered most -- my family."
Chuck Herring, the attorney for the newly married couple, told the Chron the stay "doesn't impact my clients." Herring further said Paxton would have to sue the couple to nullify the marriage license if he truly wants to kill Texas' first gay marriage.
Sarah Goodfriend and Suzanne Bryant just became the first same-sex couple to legally marry in Texas.
Goodfriend and Bryant, who have been together for nearly 31 years, married Thursday morning after a judge ordered the Travis County Clerk's Office to issue the couple a marriage license, reports Chuck Lindell with the Austin American-Statesman. Photos posted to Facebook show the couple exchanging vows in front of the clerk's office sign, flanked by supporters and their two daughters.
Texas' first gay marriage comes on the heels of an unexpected ruling from a Travis County probate court judge, who on Tuesday declared Texas' ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Travis County Probate Court Judge Guy Herman made the ruling during an estate case, in which Sonemaly Phrasavath argued her eight-year relationship with Stella Powell should be considered a common-law marriage -- Powell died last summer of colon cancer. In arguing for her right to her long-term partner's estate, Phrasavath had also challenged the constitutionality of the state's ban on gay marriage.
Travis County officials scrambled to figure out what to do about Herman's ruling Tuesday and Wednesday. Meanwhile Attorney General Ken Paxton, who had previously declined an offer to be a party in the case, reneged and filed an appeal with the Texas Supreme Court hoping to overturn Herman's decision. Paxton said in a statement yesterday:
"Texas law is clear on the definition of marriage, and I will fight to protect this sacred institution and uphold the will of Texans, who voted overwhelmingly in favor of a constitutional amendment defining the union as between one man and one woman. The probate judge's misguided ruling does not change Texas law or allow the issuance of a marriage license to anyone other than one man and one woman."
Still, on Thursday morning District Judge David Wahlberg, who'd been petitioned by an attorney for Goodfriend and Bryant, ordered the Travis County Clerk to grant the couple a marriage license, triggering the state's first legal same-sex marriage.
Goodfriend and Bryant at the Travis County Clerk's Office on Thursday
Advocates have already begun to cheer the move. "This is a historic day for fairness and equality in Texas," said Freedom to Marry president Evan Wolfson. "The family that Suzanne and Sarah have built together over more than three decades of commitment to each other mirrors the love between so many same-sex couples in Texas, all of whom deserve the freedom to marry."
Last year, when a federal judge ruled Texas' gay marriage ban unconstitutional, an American-Statesman reporter shot a video of Goodfriend and Bryant reacting to the decision. "I'm so pleased an happy that our 30 year relationship is being affirmed and I'm really happy for our children," Goodfriend says on the video. "We're just so happy to see our family affirmed."
However the state appealed that ruling and the case got bumped the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard arguments in the case last month. It's still an open question whether the Fifth Circuit will make a ruling now that the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to come out with a definitive gay-marriage ruling by June.
Still, those pending federal decisions don't prevent a state judge from deciding independently that the Texas ban on gay-marriage is unconstitutional, Aaron Bruhl, an associate professor of law at University of Houston, says. Until SCOTUS issues a decision, state judges get to interpret the law however they see fit, Bruhl says.
"Most people are expecting the Supreme Court to say that there is a fundamental right on this in late June. If they do, that will apply throughout the country, but until that happens, there isn't a federal ruling that binds state judges one way or the other," Bruhl says.
Texas isn't the only state dealing with this sort of legal limbo as the issue plays out in the courts. Despite a federal district court ruling in Alabama earlier this month that overturned the state's ban on same-sex marriages, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court has ordered probate judges there not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. As for now, the state is literally divided on the issue -- the New York Times reports that as of Wednesday, 48 of Alabama's 67 counties were issuing licenses to same-sex couples.
"We're having the same problems and issues as Alabama had on this issue last week, we're just on the opposite side of it," UH's Bruhl told the Press.
Meanwhile, the attorney for two gay couples fighting to overturn the Texas gay-marriage ban in the Fifth Circuit continues to urge the appeals court to lift the stay and allow same-sex marriages to commence immediately across the state -- not just for one couple in Travis County.
Goodfriend and Bryant, the couple that married in Travis County Thursday morning, "had to hire a lawyer, file a lawsuit, and provide compelling grounds for relief in order to be married -- something opposite-sex couples never have to do in order to be married," said attorney Neel Lane. "My clients and I are delighted by the marriage, but we are fighting for the right of all same-sex couples to be treated the same as everyone else when it comes to marriage."
Dianna Wray contributed reporting