Eureka Springs: Gay marriage has arrived in the Bible Belt in the US South, beginning with two women who had travelled overnight to ensure they`d be first in line.
In total, 15 licenses were issued for same-sex couples in northwest Arkansas` Carroll County, Deputy Clerk Jane Osborn said after her office closed yesterday afternoon.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza paved the way Friday with a ruling that removed a 10-year-old barrier, saying a state constitutional amendment overwhelmingly passed by Arkansas voters in 2004 banning gay marriage was "an unconstitutional attempt to narrow the definition of equality."
Piazza`s ruling also overturned a 1997 state law banning gay marriage.
But because Piazza didn`t issue a stay, Arkansas` 75 county clerks were left to decide for themselves whether to grant marriage licenses.
If the judge`s decision is upheld, Arkansas would join the 17 states and Washington, DC, that have legalised same-sex marriage.
Momentum has swung toward gay marriage across the country after the US Supreme Court last year ruled that a law forbidding the federal government from recognising same-sex marriages was unconstitutional.
Since then, lower-court judges have repeatedly cited the decision when striking down some of the same-sex marriage bans that were enacted after Massachusetts became the first state to recognise gay marriages in 2004.
Jennifer Rambo, 26, and Kristin Seaton, 27, were the first gay couple to be legally married in one of the secessionist southern states that belonged to the old Confederacy on the losing side in the American Civil War in 1861-65.
Anti-gay marriage sentiments run strong in this region known as the Bible Belt because of its large numbers of socially conservative evangelicals.
Rambo and Seaton arrived in Eureka Springs about 2 a.M., slept in a Ford Focus and awoke every half-hour to make sure no one else would take a spot at the head of the line.
"Thank God," Rambo said after Osborn issued a marriage license to her and Seaton, a former volleyball player at the University of Arkansas. The couple from Fort Smith, Arkansas, wed moments later on a sidewalk near the county courthouse; the officiant wore a rainbow-coloured dress.
As dawn came, no one was certain that any clerk would issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple. Initially, deputy clerk Lana Gordon said she wasn`t sure she had the authority and shooed the couples from her office.
"We just walked out of here crying," Rambo said.
But once Osborn intervened, other same-sex couples let the couple return to their place in line.