Alabama Judges Believe They Can Deny Same-Sex Couples Marriage Licenses Because Of One Word In Segregation-Era Law

It looks like some Alabama judges are trying to use a segregation-era law to deny same-sex couples their constitutional right to marry.

From Arkansas Online:

In 1961, as Alabama's all-white Legislature tried to preserve racial segregation and worried about the possibility of mixed-race marriages, lawmakers rewrote state law to make it optional for counties to issue marriage licenses.

Now, some judges who oppose same-sex marriage are using the long-forgotten amendment to get out of the marriage business altogether rather than risk issuing even one wedding license to same-sex couples. In at least nine of Alabama's 67 counties, judges have quit issuing any marriage licenses since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex unions in June...

Nick Williams, a Baptist minister who also serves as probate judge in Washington County, is among those who have left the marriage-license business. He says issuing a license for a same-sex union would violate his Christian beliefs...Judges in three adjoining counties stopped issuing licenses for similar reasons, creating a region in southwestern Alabama where marriage licenses aren't available for 78,000 people. 

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You may have rolled your eyes when your high school English teacher told you this, but the Alabama judges' reprehensible behavior shows just how important word choice can be. According to the article, the 1961 amendment declares that probate judges "may" issue marriage licenses in their counties, not that they "shall" issue them. The difference is subtle, but the "may" in this instance makes these government officials believe that they have the choice to grant marriage licenses as opposed to a responsibility. Probate judges could use this to avoid sanctioning mixed-race marriages in the 1960's, and they are trying to use the law now to shut out same-sex couples. Of course, it remains to be seen whether they’ll get away with it, since a state statute doesn’t trump couples’ constitutional rights.

History, they say, has a way of repeating itself. Alabama may be resurrecting its hateful past to discriminate against LGBT Americans today, but its actions will be viewed by the next generation with the same revulsion as state-sanctioned segregation is in 2015.