Although apparently limited to Travis County, a court ruling today resulted in Texas’s first same-sex marriage since it was banned by the state Constitution after a statewide vote in 2005. The marriage of Sarah Goodfriend and Suzanne Bryant, who have been together for more than thirty years, initially side-stepped efforts by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to prevent it. But by mid-afternoon, the Texas Supreme Court had put both the lower court and the marriage on hold.
“The Court’s action upholds our state constitution and stays these rulings by activist judges in Travis County,” Paxton said in a statement following the Supreme Court’s orders. “The same-sex marriage license issued by the Travis County Clerk is void, just as any license issued in violation of state law would be. I will continue to defend the will of the people of Texas, who have defined marriage as between one man and one woman, against any judicial activism or overreach.”
The drama started to unfold Tuesday when probate Judge Guy Herman ruled the state’s ban on same-sex marriages is unconstitutional. Sonemaly Phrasaveth wanted to have her marriage to Stella Powell legally recognized. Powell had died of colon cancer last year. Paxton appealed the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court on Wednesday. In a statement, he said:
“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.”
But then Thursday morning state District Judge David Wahlberg issued an order to Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir to issue a marriage license to Goodfriend and Bryant, who immediately were married by Rabbi Kerry Baker. For a full report on the marriage, please read the Austin American-Statesman story.
The issue at present is limited to Travis County. A federal judge last year declared the state ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional but put his ruling on hold pending appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on such bans nationwide this year. There remain questions about whether the marriage will remain legal if the state Supreme Court overturns Herman’s ruling, but for the moment, the state’s only same-sex marriage was legal.
Supporters of same-sex marriage celebrated the milestone on social media on Thursday. But opponents weren’t giving up. Rep. Cecil Bell, R-Magnolia, has introduced House Bill 623 to prohibit payments to county clerks who issue same-sex marriage licenses. Bell admits no state money goes to the clerks, but he said it would empower county commissioner courts to block payments for marriage licenses at the local level. Bell said if the U.S. Supreme Court upholds state bans on gay marriage, then today’s wedding in Austin will be meaningless because Texas still will not recognize same-sex marriages. “Then that piece of paper will be just that, a piece of paper. They will have a piece of paper and nothing more.”
UPDATE: Paxton has asked the Texas Supreme Court to block the court order and declare the marriage invalid.
“The Texas Constitution clearly defines marriage as between one man and one woman, as Texas voters approved by an overwhelming majority. 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.”
Without stating an opinion, the Texas Supreme Court issued two stays to halt any further action on the Travis County court cases, put the legal status of the marriage on hold until further court proceedings and to keep any other county clerks from issuing same-sex marriage licenses.
Earlier in the day, Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick issued statements supporting Paxton. Abbott’s statement said, “Article 1, Section 32 of the Texas Constitution defines marriage as consisting ‘only of the union of one man and one woman’ and was approved by more than three-quarters of Texas voters. I am committed to ensuring that the Texas Constitution is upheld and that the rule of law is maintained in the State of Texas.” Patrick said, “I fully support the Attorney General’s emergency appeals and efforts to fully enforce the laws of Texas. I hope the Texas Supreme Court will respond in a timely fashion in addressing General Paxton’s appeals.”
(AP Photo | Eric Gay)