A judge said Monday he'll decide in the next two days whether Arkansas should recognize more than 500 same-sex marriages that were performed in the state last year, a move that would let the couples enjoy a host of benefits such as enrolling together on state health insurance plans.
An attorney for two of the couples told Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen her clients have been deprived of their rights for more than a year since the state won't recognize their unions as legal. The state Supreme Court halted the distribution of marriage licenses to gay couples after a week in May 2014 and is considering an appeal over a voter-approved same-sex marriage ban.
"They need to be able to exercise and enjoy the benefits of their marriages," Cheryl Maples said during a hearing before Griffen.
The couples sued in February, arguing that the state was violating their rights by not recognizing the unions. If Griffen orders Arkansas to recognize the marriage licenses as valid, it means the couples can file taxes jointly, appear jointly on a child's birth certificate, enroll together on state health insurance plans or even file for divorce.
The Arkansas Supreme Court hasn't indicated when it'll rule on the challenge to the 2004 voter-approved same-sex marriage ban. Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza had struck down as unconstitutional both the ban and an earlier state law defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
Justices suspended his decision a week later, halting the marriages.
Assistant Attorney General Colin Jorgensen argued Monday that the marriage licenses can't be considered valid, noting that Piazza's initial ruling on May 9, 2014, didn't specifically strike down a state law banning clerks from issuing same-sex marriage licenses. Piazza issued a new ruling six days later to strike down that law as well.
Jorgensen said judges can correct clerical errors, but aren't allowed to "travel back in time" with subsequent rulings.
Griffen was among a number of people who presided over same-sex marriage ceremonies in May 2014.
The ruling comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is nearing a decision on whether to legalize gay marriage nationwide. Judges across the country have ruled against bans similar to Arkansas' since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of a federal anti-gay marriage law in June 2013. Gay marriage is now legal in more than half of U.S. states.
Griffen at one point during the hearing questioned whether he should wade into the debate given the pending cases before the state and national high courts, asking "Why should this court decide this controversy now?"
Both couples suing the state over the licenses attended Monday's hearing and said afterward they've been living in uncertainty for more than a year. Angelia Frazier-Henson said she and her wife, Kathy Henson, haven't had a wedding ceremony with family and friends since they were married because of the legal fight over the ban.
"We don't know if we're going to have to do it again," Frazier-Henson said. "We want to wait until they can't take that away from us."