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Licensed at last
She said ‘yes’

Martin’s shift leads to first same-sex weddings in Calhoun County

Licensed and Bonded

Same-sex marriage begins in Calhoun County on Wednesday morning at the Calhoun County Administration building. Probate Judge Alice Martin talks to Melissa Angle and Vicky Miles who were there to get their marriage certificate. Photo by Bill Wilson / The Anniston Star

Melissa Angle and Vicky Miles emerged from the Calhoun County Administration Building on Wednesday morning with a marriage license in hand, the first same-sex couple to obtain permission to marry in the county.

"It feels like the air is lighter," Angle said. "It feels like we're equal and not less than."

The Saks couple – together for the past six years, with a 3-year-old son – were the first of two same-sex couples to obtain a marriage license after Probate Judge Alice Martin agreed late Tuesday to allow the unions.

“While I am of the opinion an Order with further instruction to the Probate Judges is necessary,” Martin wrote in prepared statement Wednesday, “that has not been forthcoming, and the Supreme Court’s decision, by a 7 to 2 majority, has been the ultimate deciding factor in my decision today to issue marriage licenses to same-sex applicants.”

For gay couples intending to tie the knot, Martin’s reversal was the end of a nearly three-week roller-coaster of legal challenges.

In late January, U.S. District Judge Callie V.S. Granade struck down the state’s ban on same-sex nuptials in two cases involving Mobile couples. Granade agreed to temporarily stay the decision until this week, while state officials appealed the ruling.

The night before the stay elapsed, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore ordered the state’s probate judges to ignore the federal court ruling and refuse to license same-sex couples. Several probate judges issued licenses Monday anyway. Others, including Martin, waited, saying they wanted to hear more clear direction from the courts.

Martin welcomed Miles and Angle to her office Wednesday, handed her statement to reporters and left. In the statement, she said she reached the decision after consulting with legal counsel.

“We stood up, we didn’t back down, and we finally made it,” Angle said after receiving the marriage license.

Elsewhere in the state, probate judges braced for court challenges from same-sex couples seeking marriage licenses. Granade, the federal judge, is expected to hear arguments Thursday in a case brought by three couples, and advocacy groups have openly urged gay couples to lawyer up. One of those groups, Americans United for Separation of Church and State. confirmed in an email that it had heard from two Calhoun County couples and were ready to intervene on their behalf before the probate office changed its policy.

Miles and Angle wouldn’t comment on any legal action they’d considered. They said they expected an announcement from gay rights advocacy groups later in the week, and would talk about the matter then.

More than a dozen well-wishers, carrying signs and rainbow flags, cheered couples as they emerged from the probate office with licenses. No one showed up to protest the unions.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on same-sex marriage nationwide by June, but the suddenness of developments in Alabama took many by surprise. Just three weeks ago, even gay couples saw same-sex marriage as a distant possibility.

If it was a lightning-fast change, it was also one years in the making. Coming out as gay in the Deep South has long been inherently risky, some in the crowd said. This week’s pro-marriage rallies are among the first public displays of gay-rights advocacy in Anniston’s history.

“When I came out, it was not that welcoming,” said Miles, who came out about 25 years ago. She said she’d been called “faggot” and even had people throw things at her.

When Miles came out to her mother, her mother wept – not because her daughter was gay, but because she had waited so long to tell her.

“I said, ‘Well, Mama I didn’t know if you’d love me anymore,’ and she said ‘How could I not?’,” Miles said. “If you have your family behind you, you can do anything.”

Anniston resident Brooke Hunter said she hadn’t encountered as much homophobia as one might expect in Alabama, despite being out “since I was old enough to know what was going on with me.”

“I honestly haven’t had a lot of experiences in my life that were a problem. The only barrier I’ve had is here,” she said, slapping the counter at the probate judge’s office.

Hunter made the remark as clerks processed her application for license to marry Suzy Clark, her partner for 20 years. Hunter and Clark praised the probate judge for her politeness, but also said that their rights – to survivor benefits, insurance and other privileges of marriage – shouldn’t have been denied by the state.

Hunter and Clark later said their vows in the parking lot of the county administration building, becoming the first same-sex couple to wed in the county.

“I now pronounce you wife and wife,” said minister Mandi Long at the end of the ceremony. “You may share a kiss.”

Jacksonville resident Jade Wagner wiped away tears as Long presented the newlyweds to the crowd. The child of a black father and white mother, Wagner said she felt it was important to cheer on other couples who break barriers.

“It’s important to be on the right side of history,” Wagner said.

Gay rights supporters lingered in the parking lot after the Hunter wedding, but inside the probate judge’s office, things quickly returned to business as usual. Ronald Turner and Rachelle Matthews sat quietly filling out a marriage license, with a plan to say their vows the day before Valentine’s Day.

Asked their thoughts on gay marriage, both said other people’s nuptials weren’t really their business.

“I say treat all people equal,” Turner said. “Their life is their life.”

Tim Lockette and Patrick McCreless provided reporting.