50 years on, Selma sees another rights battle

Fifty years after protesters clashed with police on their steps, some Alabama courthouses are once again contested territory in a federal-state dispute over same-sex marriages.

But in the city made world famous by civil rights bloodshed, all was quiet last week at the Dallas County Court House. While there was celebration and controversy in Montgomery and Mobile, the probate judge in Selma quietly decided to allow a license to any same-sex couple that wanted one, despite his moral qualms.

At week’s end, Judge Kimbrough Ballard had yet to issue a license to two gay men or two lesbians.

“I know for a fact we probably have some, but they probably just decided to stay in the closet,” Ballard said. “Or to go to Montgomery.”

The somewhat sleepy city of 20,000 is getting set to play host next month to tens of thousands of visitors, including President Barack Obama, for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Atlanta Democratic U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who was brutally beaten as he led the famous march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, was in town Saturday to do a series of news interviews ahead of the commemoration.

Lewis called for gay marriage rights in 2003, well before most of his colleagues in Congress, and has compared the struggle for equal treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to the civil rights movement he helped lead.

“It’s an interesting debate, discussion going on here,” Lewis said. “But it reminds me of another period in this state. It is time for the state to move in the right direction. … You cannot have state courts defying a federal court.”

Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Callie Granade declared Alabama’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional, specifying that a temporary stay would expire Feb. 9. Higher courts did not reverse her decision.

But on the eve of the first day of same-sex marriages in Alabama, state Chief Justice Roy Moore ordered the state’s probate judges not to perform ceremonies for same-sex couples – in defiance of the federal court.

Some judges ignored Moore and started issuing licenses. Others heeded Moore and continued to bar same-sex couples. Still other counties – including in Mobile, at the center of the action – refused to issue marriage licenses at all. A more specific order from Granade compelled Mobile to relent on Thursday.

By Friday, a tally by Equality Alabama found that six of the state’s 67 counties were still refusing to issue licenses to same-sex couples and another seven had stopped issuing any licenses. Equality Alabama board chairman Ben Cooper said the holdout counties were mostly in rural areas.

The Alabama Supreme Court has agreed to hear an emergency petition from conservative groups to halt the marriages, but the timing is unclear.

On Fox News Sunday, Moore argued that Granade’s order only applied to Mobile – and not to the 66 other counties in the state. Even if the U.S. Supreme Court legalizes same-sex marriage across the country in June, Moore indicated he would continue to fight.

“This power over marriage, which came from God under our organic law, is not to be redefined by the U.S. Supreme Court or any federal court,” Moore said. Then he tried to turn the tables by comparing rulings such as Granade’s to some of the most infamous court cases that upheld slavery and segregation.

"They may do it, but they may do wrongfully, just like they did in Dred Scott (the 1857 ruling that no black person could be a citizen) and Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896, when they said separate but equal was the policy of the United States."

Moore’s defiance, for many, recalled that of Alabama civil rights era Democratic Gov. George Wallace.

“He was just like George Wallace standing in the doorways” of the University of Alabama to prevent black students from enrolling, said James Strawser, 51, who married John Humphrey, 38, in Mobile on Thursday. They were among the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit that produced Granade’s ruling.

“It’s not no damn difference,” Strawser said of the 1960s civil rights movement and the gay rights movement of today. “The only thing different about it is the color of our skin. That’s the only thing different. It’s all the same political garbage they went through, and now the gays went through.”

Ballard, the Dallas County probate judge, said Moore did not have a legal leg to stand on but was morally correct about gay marriage.

“Same-sex marriage is not a civil right; it’s a lifestyle choice, in my opinion,” Ballard said. “Voting was a civil right.”

Even some of Alabama’s newlywed same-sex couples expressed uneasiness about drawing lines across decades.

Tori Wolfe-Sisson, 24, camped out overnight to make sure she and her now-spouse, Shanté Wolfe-Sisson, 21, would be first in line to get a marriage license in Montgomery on Feb. 9. Having attended historically black Tuskegee University – an important crossroads for the movement during the '60s – Tori knows the history.

“I don’t think it’s possible to compare them, but as a whole, all of these movements are a continuum of each other,” she said.

Allen Jackson, 40, who married Clint Davis, 34, in Montgomery on Monday said: “I hate comparing it to the civil rights movement. …

“There could be some comparisons made, but it is different; it is,” Jackson added. “Thankfully, we’re not having hoses drug out, and we’re not being beaten by the police.”

Jackson has spent the past week getting used to the strange sensation of having a ring on his finger and the unexpected feeling that comes with his new legal bond. He and Davis, who are going through the process of becoming foster parents, spent Valentine’s Day at an Auburn University baseball game.

Roy Moore had no effect on his life.

“He’s irrelevant, really,” Jackson said. “We’re moving forward, and you can come along and go with us, or not. The world just marches on.”