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MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — The federal judge who overturned Alabama's gay-marriage ban ordered a reluctant county to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, signaling to probate judges across the state that they should do the same.

About an hour after U.S. District Judge Callie Granade's ruling, Mobile County opened up its marriage license office and started granting the documents to gay couples. Gay-rights advocates said they hoped Granade's order would smooth an uneven legal landscape where gay couples have been able to marry in some Alabama counties and not in others. However, it wasn't immediately clear what other judges would do.

At least 23 of Alabama's 67 counties are issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.

Robert Povilat and his partner Milton Persinger were the first of several couples to get a marriage license in Mobile County. They wore camellia boutonnieres and exchanged vows in the atrium.

"Ecstatic. Ecstatic. We're married," Povilat said.

Randall Marshall, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, said his group was ready to litigate the case county by county, if necessary.

"We hope other probate judges will look at this and see they too could soon be a defendant in a lawsuit if they don't start treating everybody equally," Marshall said.

Mobile and other counties had refused to issue the marriage licenses after Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore told probate judges on Sunday they didn't have to because they were not defendants in the original case.

Moore has argued that Granade's Jan. 23 ruling striking down the Bible Belt state's gay-marriage ban was an illegal intrusion on Alabama's sovereignty.

Moore made a name for himself by fighting to keep a Ten Commandments monument at a courthouse, refusing to remove it even though a federal judge ordered him to. His resistance cost him his job, but he won re-election as chief justice in 2012.

Moore was not at the brief hearing Granade held Thursday because he was not a defendant in the civil case. However, he was often the subject of the discussion.

Marshall called Moore's directive, sent hours before courthouses opened Monday, a "ploy" to stop gay marriage in Alabama. A telephone message left with Moore's office was not immediately returned Thursday.

Before the hearing, Moore was steadfast in his belief that the federal courts had intruded in the state's sovereignty.

"Once they start tampering with the definition of marriage which was given of God, there is no end to it," he said.

A long-time supporter of Moore's, who watched the hearing, predicted that this would not be the end of the fight. Orange Beach businessman Dean Young dismissed the hearing as a "dog and pony show."

"Eighty-one percent of the people voted for a constitutional amendment saying marriage is between one man and one woman," Young said of the 2006 vote for a gay marriage ban.

Michael Druhan, an attorney for Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis, said Davis closed marriage license operations altogether this week — even for heterosexual couples — rather than navigate what seemed like a legal minefield of conflicting directives.

Following the judge's ruling Thursday, Tuscaloosa County Probate Judge Hardy McCollum said his office also will begin to issue licenses, The Tuscaloosa News reported.

The number of states in which gay and lesbian couples can marry has nearly doubled since October, from 19 to 37, largely as a result of terse Supreme Court orders that allowed lower court rulings to become final and rejected state efforts to keep marriage bans in place pending appeals.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in April and is expected to issue a ruling by June regarding whether gay couples nationwide have a fundamental right to marry and whether states can ban such unions.


Steve Coleman, religion editor for Associated Press Radio in Washington, contributed to this report.