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Gay marriage legal showdown in Alabama

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore sent an order to state probate judges Sunday night telling them to refuse to issue the marriage licenses to gay couples. U.S. District Judge Callie Granade on Jan. 23 ruled that the state's statutory and constitutional bans on gay marriage were unconstitutional 

Tori Sisson and Shante Wolfe camped in a blue and white tent outside the Montgomery County Courthouse during the early hours Monday, hugging and talking excitedly of getting married soon.

They hoped to be the first couple to get a marriage license Monday morning as a federal judge's order overturning the state's ban on gay marriage goes into effect, making Alabama the 37th state to allow gays and lesbians to wed.

"It's about time," Wolfe, 21, said of gay marriage being allowed in the Deep South state.

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, in an 11th hour move to keep the weddings on hold, sent an order to state probate judges Sunday night telling them to refuse to issue the marriage licenses to gay couples. Moore argued that judges are not bound by the ruling of a federal judge that the gay marriage ban is unconstitutional.

It was a dramatic return to defiance for Moore who was removed as chief justice in 2003 for refusing to obey a federal court order to remove a washing machine-sized Ten Commandments from the state judicial building. Critics lashed out that Moore had no authority to tell county probate judges to enforce a law that a federal judge already ruled unconstitutional.

"This is a pathetic, last-ditch attempt at judicial fiat by an Alabama Supreme Court justice_a man who should respect the rule of law rather than advance his personal beliefs," said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign.

Warbelow urged probate judges to issue the licenses in compliance with ruling of U.S. District Judge Callie Granade. Granade on Jan. 23 ruled that the state's statutory and constitutional bans on gay marriage were unconstitutional but put her order on hold until Feb. 9 to let the state prepare for the change.

Moore said Granade had no authority to order the change and that Alabama courts could do as their judges saw fit until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled. Last week, Moore sent a letter urging probate judges to reject the licenses. The head of the judges' association on Friday predicted most would issue the licenses. Moore upped the ante Sunday night by sending the directive.

"Effective immediately, no probate judge of the state of Alabama nor any agent or employee of any Alabama probate judge shall issue or recognize a marriage license that is inconsistent with (the Alabama Constitution)," Moore, who serves as head of the court system, wrote in the letter sent Sunday night.

Gay couples are expected to still line up at courthouses across Alabama on Monday seeking to get married. It was unknown how many of the state's probate judges would follow Moore.

"We will see marriage equality in Alabama tomorrow. I don't think the probate judges in Alabama are going to defy a federal court judge's order," predicted Susan Watson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama.

Granade has said while judges were not a party in the lawsuit, they have a legal duty under the U.S. Constitution to issue the licenses.

Moore has been one of the state's most outspoken critics of gay marriage. He called homosexuality an "inherent evil" in a 2002 custody ruling against a lesbian mother.

It was unclear what, if any, enforcement provision Moore has. Probate judges are elected just as the chief justice is. Moore's letter to the probate judges said Gov. Robert Bentley can take action against elected officials who fail to follow the law. Jennifer Ardis, a spokeswoman for Bentley, said she did not know about Moore's letter and did not have an immediate comment Sunday evening.

Attorney General Luther Strange has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to put a hold on Granade's order since justices are expected to issue a ruling later this year on whether gay couples have a right to marry nationwide. The high court had not ruled on the state's request with just hours to go until courthouses open on Monday morning.

More than 100 people attended a "Sanctity of Marriage" rally at the Alabama Capitol on Saturday. With the sign "One Man One Woman" behind them, speakers said they stood with the biblical definition of marriage and the 80 percent of voters who approved Alabama's gay marriage ban in 2006.

A group of marriage rights supporters gathered across the street waving signs reading, "Y'all means all" and singing a version of "Going to the Chapel," but changing the word chapel to courthouse.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed

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