LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - The Arkansas Supreme Court refused Wednesday to put on hold a ruling that overturned the state's constitutional ban on gay marriage, but the short-lived ability for same-sex couples to wed in the state still came to a halt amid confusion about what comes next.
The justices in their decision offered no direction on that point to the state's county clerks, some of whom had pointed to another ban against gay marriage that is written into an aspect of state law and questioned if it remained in effect.
Last Friday, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza threw out a 10-year-old ban that voters placed in the state constitution and a separate state law barring same-sex marriages. But he didn't rule on a third law that regulates the conduct of county clerks, which threatens fines if they issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Clerks in five counties responded to Piazza's decision by starting to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, and more than 450 gay couples in Arkansas have since received a license to marry. Two counties continued to issue licenses on Wednesday, but they stopped after the Supreme Court's ruling. Couples that already have licenses can still get married.
"County clerks have been uncertain about their responsibilities and couples unable to know definitively whether their marriage will remain valid," said Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for Attorney General Dustin McDaniel. "A stay issued by either the Supreme Court or Judge Piazza would have brought some certainty. Unfortunately, today's decision did not do that."
The state's other 70 counties had not issued licenses to gay couples, with many saying the Supreme Court needed to weigh in.
Also Wednesday, the high court dismissed McDaniel's initial appeal of Piazza's ruling, saying it was premature because Piazza hadn't issued a final order. His office promised Wednesday it would now file an appeal at the appropriate time.
Chris Villines, executive director of the Association of Arkansas Counties, said the ruling didn't appear to clear up the confusion that followed Piazza's order last week.
"I think it actually makes it a little more muddy," Villines said.
More than three-quarters of Arkansas voters had approved the state's constitutional ban on gay marriage in 2004. In Piazza's ruling, which cleared the way for the first same-sex marriages in the Bible Belt, the judge said the ban violates the rights of same-sex couples.
"This is an unconstitutional attempt to narrow the definition of equality," Piazza wrote. "The exclusion of a minority for no rational reason is a dangerous precedent."
Carroll County, home to the tourist town of Eureka Springs, was the first to offer marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Fifteen licenses were issued the day after Piazza's ruling, but the county stopped handing out the licenses Monday. Pulaski County, started issuing licenses Monday morning.
McDaniel recently said he supported gay marriage personally but would still defend the state's ban.
Seventeen other states allow gay marriage. Judges have struck down bans in Idaho, Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Virginia.