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Federal Judge May Clarify Confusion In Ala. Gay Marriage Standoff


And in Alabama, same-sex couples and local judges want some clarity on gay marriage. They're hoping a hearing in Mobile today will help sort out the confusion since a federal judge struck down the state's gay marriage ban. It all started when Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore told probate judges they were not bound by the federal court's decision. NPR's Debbie Elliott has been following events this week, and she's been reporting on Justice Roy Moore, aka the Ten Commandments judge. For nearly two decades now, she joins us from Montgomery. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: Debbie, from your reports this week, it sounds like it's really a hodgepodge there now in Alabama in terms of where same-sex couples can get married.

ELLIOTT: It is. About a third of the counties here are now issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but most still are not. Some are turning away only gay couples, others have just stopped issuing licenses altogether until they perceive - until this legal limbo, what they perceive as legal limbo, is settled.

MONTAGNE: And yesterday, you spoke with Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore about the situation there. What did he tell you?

ELLIOTT: You know, he says he hopes this attention will bring a new understanding of the relationship between state and federal law. Moore's argument here is that state judges have just as much authority to interpret the U.S. Constitution as federal judges. And he says there's nothing in the Constitution about marriage, which he says is ordained of God.

JUDGE ROY MOORE: This power to define marriage is not given to the federal government. It is reserved to the states and to the people, and it is simply an abuse of power to go into the Constitution and redefine a word which is not even in there.

MONTAGNE: And, Debbie, his talk of state sovereignty has critics comparing Moore's stance to former Alabama Governor George Wallace's infamous stand in the schoolhouse door to block integration in the '60s. Is this a states' rights fight?

ELLIOTT: Well, Justice Moore is not fond of the comparison.

MOORE: I'm not rallying against the federal government whatsoever. I want the federal government to keep within the confines of what the federal government is supposed to do.

ELLIOTT: One of Moore's longtime adversaries, The Southern Poverty Law Center, has now filed an ethics complaint against the justice for this issue. Here's what the center's president, Richard Cohen, has to say about the way the whole same-sex marriage battle is playing out in Alabama.

RICHARD COHEN: It's exactly what Moore wanted. He wanted to cause a lot of confusion and turmoil, and that's what's happened so far.

ELLIOTT: Now, Cohen accuses Moore of trying to exploit this issue for political gain.

MONTAGNE: Well, Roy Moore has run for governor before and lost, and he's defied a federal court order and lost. He's had a storied political career in Alabama, earning a reputation for strong religious convictions. How did he get to this point?

ELLIOTT: Well, he first earned national attention as a circuit judge in Gadsden, Ala. He prayed in court. He hung a hand-carved Ten Commandments plaque in his courtroom. Here he is on the bench there in 1997 after a court had ruled that behavior unconstitutional.


MOORE: As we have always done in Etowah County, we're going to begin by opening with prayer. We have...

ELLIOTT: That earned him popularity as the Ten Commandments judge. He was elected chief justice, then he put this big Ten Commandments monument, two and a half tons, in the state judicial building. In 2003, he was removed from that office when he defied a federal court order to take it down.


MOORE: I will never, never deny the God upon whom our laws in our country...


MONTAGNE: Now he's been reelected as chief justice for the Alabama Supreme Court and is in the middle of this same-sex marriage debate. How does he see this playing out?

ELLIOTT: He says ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court will be the final arbiter as to whether gay marriage is legal. I asked him if Alabama judges will then be bound by that decision, which we do expect later this year. His answer was yes, but...

MOORE: They can mandate same-sex marriage, but they can't force a constitutional officer to disobey his oath by performing one.

ELLIOTT: So, as you see, Renee, it's still somewhat uncertain where this is headed.

MONTAGNE: OK. Well, thanks very much. That's NPR's Debbie Elliott in Montgomery, Ala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.