MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – Alabama’s chief justice built his career on defiance: In 2003, Roy Moore was removed from the bench for defying a federal court order to remove a boulder-size Ten Commandments monument from the state courthouse.
On Monday, as Alabama became the 37th state where gays can legally wed, Moore took a defiant stand again, employing the kind of states’ rights language used during the Civil War and again during the civil rights movement.
He argued that a federal judge’s Jan. 23 ruling striking down the Bible Belt state’s gay-marriage ban was an illegal intrusion on Alabama’s sovereignty. And he demanded the state’s probate judges not issue any marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
“It’s my duty to speak up when I see the jurisdiction of our courts being intruded by unlawful federal authority,” the 67-year-old Republican chief justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court said in an interview Monday.
His stand did not succeed in stopping gay couples from tying the knot. And it brought forth another round of criticism of Moore at a time when the movie “Selma” has reminded many Americans of Alabama’s segregationist defiance of the federal government in the 1960s.
Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a major civil rights organization, branded Moore the “Ayatollah of Alabama.”
Moore’s office in the Alabama judicial building is down the street from the Alabama Capitol, where in 1963 Gov. George Wallace promised “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” and vowed to fight what he portrayed as the tyranny of the federal government.
“Moore is using the religion issue to further his political career, just as Wallace used the race issue to further his,” Cohen said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a judicial complaint against Moore accusing him of trying to incite chaos at the probate courts.
On Monday, some counties refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses or shut down their licensing operations altogether, citing confusion about what they should do. But at least seven of Alabama’s 67 counties issued gay marriage licenses, and same-sex couples were wed at courthouses in such places as Birmingham and Montgomery.
In Birmingham, the Jefferson County Probate Office said it had dispensed more than 250 licenses to same-sex couples by midday, with people still arriving. Only three opposite-sex couples had received licenses.
Some of the gay couples who had been lined up for hours exited courthouses to applause, delighted by the opportunity to exchange vows.
“I figured that we would be that last ones – I mean, they would drag Alabama kicking and screaming to equality,” said Laura Bush, who married Dee Bush in a park outside the courthouse in Birmingham.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican and a Southern Baptist, said he believes strongly that marriage is between one man and one woman. But he said the issue should be “worked out through the proper legal channels” and not through defiance of the law.
Bentley noted that Alabama is about to be in the spotlight again with the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was passed after civil rights marchers were attacked and beaten in Selma, Alabama.
“I don’t want Alabama to be seen as it was 50 years when a federal law was defied. I’m not going to do that,” Bentley said. “I’m trying to move this state forward.”
After the Ten Commandments dispute made a national figure out Moore, he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006 and 2010. In 2012, he returned to the high court when he got elected chief justice. There has been speculation he might make a third run for governor.
He has been one of the state’s most outspoken critics of gay marriage and homosexuality. Moore called homosexuality an “inherent evil” in a 2002 ruling in a child custody case. On the campaign trail in 2012, he said that same-sex marriage would bring about the “ultimate destruction” of the country.
Late last month, U.S. District Judge Callie Granade ruled that the state marriage ban was unconstitutional and – in a later clarifying order – said probate judges have a legal duty under the U.S. Constitution to issue the licenses. On Monday morning, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block the start of gay marriages in Alabama.
Moore bristled at the comparison to Wallace and disputed the notion that same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue.
“This is not about the right of people to be recognized with race or creed or color. This is about same-sex marriage. It is not the same subject,” he said.
“Eighty-one percent of the voters adopted the Alabama Sanctity of Marriage Amendment in the Alabama Constitution. I think they want leaders that will stand up against an unlawful intrusion of their sovereignty, and that’s what we’re seeing.