Marriage equality heads South

Legal challenges and organizational advocacy make the Bible Belt the new front line for LGBT efforts

Photo: Arkansas State Capitol. Credit: BBC World Service/flickr.

Photo: Arkansas State Capitol. Credit: BBC World Service/flickr.

Marriage equality arrived in the American South shortly after 10 a.m. on Saturday. That was when Kristin Seaton, 27, and Jennifer Rambo, 26, became the first same-sex couple to be legally married in Arkansas after a judge found the state’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional one day prior. The Carroll County Courthouse in Eureka Springs was the only one open Saturday, May 10, and issued about 15 marriages licenses to same-sex couples that day. On Monday, hundreds more same-sex couples lined up outside the Little Rock Courthouse as Pulaski County, the state’s most populous county, began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, according to the Associated Press.

Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, a Democrat, has said he will appeal the decision, despite his support for same-sex marriage. And while the state has asked the Arkansas Supreme Court to put same-sex marriages on hold as the case is appealed – a course of action that has been taken in similar cases in Utah and Michigan – the legalization of same-sex marriage in Arkansas marks a watershed moment for the marriage-equality movement. 

The South has long been considered the final frontier for LGBT rights, as states in every other region of the country have moved on same-sex marriages, gay adoption and workplace protections. And while federal judges have struck down same-sex marriage bans in Virginia, Texas and elsewhere, marriage licenses have not been issued to same-sex couples while those cases are appealed. But when Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Christopher Piazza declined to stay his decision last week finding a 1997 state law and a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2004 defining marriage as between a man and a woman in violation of the U.S. Constitution, it marked the arrival of marriage equality in the Bible Belt. 

“With nearly 70 marriage cases now making their way through the courts, and five federal appellate courts now hearing arguments and soon to rule, [the] decision out of Arkansas underscores that all of America is ready for the freedom to marry,” said Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, in a statement.

Arkansas is one of three states being targeted by a multi-million dollar effort to bring LGBT-equality to the South. Announced by the Human Rights Campaign last month, Project One America will spend $8.5 million over the next three years in Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama, and devote a staff of 20 people to those three states. Each of those states has a same-sex marriage ban enshrined in its constitution, and each lacks nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people at the state or local level in employment, housing or public accommodations. 

“Right now, this country is deeply divided into two Americas — one where LGBT equality is nearly a reality and the other where LGBT people lack the most fundamental measures of equal citizenship,” HRC President Chad Griffin, who is a native of Arkansas, said in a statement. “Project One America is an unparalleled effort to close that gap, and it opens up a bold, new chapter in the LGBT civil rights movement of this generation. In this grand struggle for equality, we can’t write off anyone, anywhere.” 

The campaign will cater to Southern culture, with a focus on changing hearts and minds, advancing enduring legal protections and building more inclusive institutions for LGBT people “from the church pew to the workplace.” According to HRC, the campaign is the largest ever orchestrated to bring LGBT equality to the American South.

“The opportunities for progress couldn’t be clearer, and the need couldn’t be greater,” said Brad Clark, who will lead the campaign and comes equipped with a background of successfully working on LGBT issues in Colorado and Iowa. “Mississippi has the single highest percentage of gay and lesbian couples raising children of any state in the country, for instance, but these parents are making do without essential legal protections or inclusion in their community.” 

The effort by HRC complements work being done by other organizations and donors. In February, Freedom to Marry announced the launch of Southerners for the Freedom to Marry – a $1 million campaign to build support for same-sex marriage across the South. Teaming up with LGBT groups in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Tennessee, the coalition seeks to give voice to marriage-equality supporters, including clergy and conservatives. Moreover, Gill Action’s Political Outgiving 5.0 conference, an invitation-only conference targeting major LGBT-rights donors held earlier this month, focused on “building the road to equality in the heartland.”

As resources and dollars pour into the South, with lawsuits challenging same-sex marriage bans filed in every Southern state, advocates have no illusions about the challenges ahead. Church attendance is at its highest rates in the nation in some Southern states and Republicans dominate state legislatures. Even Democrats aren’t always allies to the cause, nor vulnerable because of their opposition to LGBT rights. Despite his party’s national platform, Democratic South Carolina gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Vincent Sheheen is opposed to same-sex marriage. Nevertheless, he has received support from the Democratic Governors Association and likely 2016 presidential candidate Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who signed marriage-equality legislation into law.

“We’re not undertaking this work because it will lead to quick, easy or sweeping victories,” stated Griffin. “We’re doing it because it is difficult. Folks in these three states shouldn’t have to wait a single day longer for one, fully equal, America.”

Last month, Mississippi lawmakers approved a “religious freedom bill” that opponents warn could lead to state-sanctioned LGBT discrimination. The bill was similar to one vetoed by Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer in February following pressure from the business community and advocates. While such setbacks are anticipated, there remain reasons to be hopeful. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released in March found 50 percent of Southerners support same-sex marriage, with 42 percent opposed, compared to a national average of 59 percent in favor and 34 percent opposed. Southerners’ views on these issues are moving, albeit at a slower rate than other regions of the country. 

In his ruling last week, Arkansas Judge Piazza took note of Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case that declared unconstitutional bans on interracial marriage — many of which existed in Southern states — as he struck down a present-day ban prohibiting loving couples from marrying. “It has been over forty years since Mildred Loving was given the right to marry the person of her choice. The hatred and fears have long since vanished and she and her husband lived full lives together; so it will be for the same-sex couples,” Piazza wrote. “It is time to let that beacon of freedom shine brighter on all our brothers and sisters. We will be stronger for it.”

Justin Snow is Metro Weekly's political editor and White House correspondent. He can be reached at jsnow@metroweekly.com.

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