Cover series: Challenges expected as marriage law becomes reality 

click to enlarge A couple walks into the Oklahoma County clerk's office on Monday hours after same-sex marriage became legal in Oklahoma. - BEN FELDER
  • Ben Felder
  • A couple walks into the Oklahoma County clerk's office on Monday hours after same-sex marriage became legal in Oklahoma.

As court clerk offices across the state began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, equality advocates expected bumps in the road as the new law is fleshed out.

Troy Stevenson with The Equality Network said his office spoke with several county offices the day after the marriages were declared legal and they were not issuing licenses to same-sex couples because they had not yet received instruction to do so.

“I think we got them all open today,” Stevenson said 24 hours after the law was announced. “But it was a fight.”

Not clear or easy

Stevenson said some counties told him they were awaiting instruction from Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt following the United States Supreme Court’s decision not to hear an appeal of a ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in the state.

The AG’s office told Oklahoma Gazette it has issued no instructions to court clerks and it had no plan to do so. The only statement from the AG’s office was one criticizing the court’s action.

“I am disappointed the Supreme Court chose not to grant a hearing of these cases,” Pruitt said in a statement.

There have also been reports of tag agencies not allowing newly married couples to apply for name changes.

However, legal experts say the district attorney for each county is the agency that should provide clarity to court clerks.

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater reviewed the order from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals lifting its stay.

“Every DA’s office represents their elected county officials, one of whom would be the court clerk,” Prater said. “As soon as the [10th Circuit Court] lifted their stay and issued their mandate, I told the court clerk to issue marriage licenses.”

Prater told the county court clerk within hours of the court decision that he could begin issuing licenses to same-sex couples. Dozens of couples were already lined up to receive marriage licenses last Monday afternoon, just a few hours after the Supreme Court announced its decision not to hear the case.

(Christopher Street)

(Christopher Street)

Progress

Several of the counties Stevenson said we’re not issuing licenses on the first day of legalization — such as Seminole County, Carter County and Cherokee County — told Oklahoma Gazette they were issuing licenses by Wednesday.

Stevenson said some confusion might come from the fact that the AG’s office issued instructions to court clerk offices following the United States v. Windsor (the Defense of Marriage Act) decision in 2013, causing some court clerks to expect instructions now.

“If the state is issuing guidance to these folks after the Windsor decision, they should offer guidance now,” Stevenson said. “If they felt it was their job to issue guidance following the Windsor, I don’t know why they don’t feel it’s their job today.”

The AG’s office said it could not confirm that it sent instructions following the Windsor decision.

In one county, a technical failure slowed the process. The Sequoyah County court clerk’s office said it was not issuing marriage licenses to same- sex couples as of Wednesday because it needed to update its computer system.

Keeping watch

Advocates like Stevenson, along with representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), are monitoring the process of marriage licenses and other legal issues that might arise.

Because many state leaders, including the governor, have expressed disapproval for same-sex marriage, there is an expectation that lawmakers will be slow to act when there are violations.

“Our work is so critical to provide accurate information to Oklahomans because our political leaders in both parties have abdicated that responsibility,” said Ryan Kiesel of the Oklahoma chapter of the ACLU. “Our governor issued a statement yesterday that widely misrepresents ... the rights that exist under the Constitution.”

Both Kiesel and Stevenson encourage same-sex couples to call their offices if they experience issues when exercising their newly recognized rights.

“If there is a lack of clarity, it’s not because the courts haven’t been clear,” Kiesel said. “The decision was made on this issue.”

Marriage equality advocates say the new law is a huge victory, but they worry that other issues, such as employment discrimination, will arise.

“We still live in a state where a person can be fired from their job because of their same-sex relationship,” said Scott Hamilton, executive director of the Cimarron Alliance.

While some same-sex couples quickly secured marriage licenses from county court clerks, some were cautious, waiting to know all the facts before making their marriage legal.

“We are definitely interested [in getting married],” said Tamra Carver, who has been with Chere Carver for over 15 years. “We just had some questions about what could happen in the future.”

Tamra and Chere are already legal mothers of Jackson, 8, but could find additional legal benefits through a legal marriage.

“Getting married would allow Chere to inherit my social security; it would allow for us not to pay the kind of inheritance tax that you would have to if you inherited something from a friend,” Tamra said. “It would change the fact that when we carry each other on our insurance benefits, we would not have to carry the tax on the benefits.

“Clearly, we are already completely obligated to each other and have already decided we want to spend our life together, but we want to be able to get some of those legal benefits.”

Print headline: Seeking clarity // New marriage law offers legal benefits — and possible legal challenges. 

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