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Arkansas judge strengthens ruling striking down gay marriage ban

Steven Gibson and Mark Hightower (R) wait to receive their marriage license at the Pulaski County Courthouse in Little Rock, Arkansas May 12
Steven Gibson and Mark Hightower (R) wait to receive their marriage license at the Pulaski County Courthouse in Little Rock, Arkansas May 12

By Steve Barnes

LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (Reuters) - An Arkansas judge who struck down the state's ban on same—sex marriage strengthened his decision on Thursday, re-authorizing gay and lesbian weddings after confusion over his original order had prompted their suspension for several hours.

Within minutes Larry Crane, the Pulaski County clerk, said his office would resume issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples and would continue to provide them until the Arkansas Supreme Court issues a stay.

State Judge Chris Piazza, who on May 9 made Arkansas the first southern state in which same-sex marriage is legal, expanded his ruling to include a related Arkansas law he had not specifically addressed when he voided both a state statute and the Arkansas constitutional prohibition against same-sex marriage.

The judge's order said it was "apparent from the court's analysis that it finds identical prohibitions" in the second statue to be unconstitutional. Piazza also made Thursday's ruling retroactive to May 9.

Almost as quickly the state announced it would seek an injunction.

"This order clarifies what we understood Judge Piazza had attempted to do last week, and it does not change our posture of seeking a stay from the Arkansas Supreme Court and pursuing an appeal," said Aaron Sadler, spokesman for state Attorney General Dustin McDaniel.

The state's initial appeals of Piazza's ruling were rejected on Wednesday by the Arkansas Supreme Court, which said it had no jurisdiction until the lower court's finding was finalized and formally entered.

The majority of county clerks in Arkansas's 75 counties had cited the law Piazza had not addressed, which banned them from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, as a basis for their continued refusal to permit gay and lesbian unions.

The two counties in which most of the Arkansas's 500 same-sex marriages have occurred - including Pulaski County, seat of the state capital, Little Rock - continued to sanction them until Thursday morning pending clarification.

Piazza's ruling was the latest by judges in state and federal courts in favor of expanding marriage rights for same-sex couples since the U.S. Supreme Court in June ruled that legally married gay couples were eligible for federal benefits.

Several federal court rulings striking down bans in other states are under appeal.

(Reporting by Steve Barnes; Editing by David Bailey and Steve Orlofsky)

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