The Bexar County marriage license office in downtown San Antonio was packed with couples Friday morning after the U.S. Supreme Court declared same-sex couples have the right to marry in all 50 states. Bexar County Clerk Gerard Rickhoff and District Attorney Nico LaHood legally reviewed the historic ruling with a team of lawyers, according to officials. Rickoff said he prepared his office ahead of time in anticipation of the ruling to accommodate same-sex couples. The newlyweds are already getting married within hours after obtaining a license.
Here’s the first sentence of the majority ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy:
“The Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-State.”
The line at the Bexar County Courthouse began forming around 9 a.m., only moments after the 5-4 ruling was announced. County Clerk Rickhoff wasn’t the only one in the city anticipating the ruling. John Truho and Larry Stern were the first gay couple to arrive, having first arrived at the courthouse Thursday, waiting for the decision to be announced. The plan wasn’t to get married, just to be present at such a historic moment to congratulate others.
“I turned to him and said, ”Hey, wanna get married?’ And he said, ‘Yeah,’” Stern said, laughing. They were already married in California in 2014, but wanted to make it official in Texas. They’ve been together for 17 years and have lived in San Antonio for 14 years.
More than a dozen couples quickly filled the small office, each with very different stories, all with the same goal: To marry the person they love. By 12 p.m. the line stretched out the door into the courthouse lobby. Identification documents and $81 cash were required (see more requirements here). San Antonio natives Veronica Uviedo and Lisa Santiago had considered going to California to obtain a marriage license, but ultimately decided to wait it out in San Antonio so family members could be present.
“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time – 22 years,” Santiago said, her voice breaking. She rushed to a bank ATM this morning to withdraw cash after receiving phone calls, tweets, and Facebook notifications announcing the decision. “Patience is a virtue, we waited and it happened.”
“This is our hometown, our families are here,” Uviedo added. “It’s worth it.”
The ruling, which overrides same-sex marriage bans in Texas and 13 other states, technically does not go into effect as the High Court gives the minority opinion three weeks to ask for reconsideration. But clerks across the nation have already begun to issue licenses to same-sex couples. Laws that define marriage as the union of a man and a woman in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee were challenged in Obergefell v. Hodges. Those states refuse to recognize valid marriages from elsewhere.
In Bexar County’s case, gender fields have been redacted from all marriage licenses. The marriage application, however, comes from the State of Texas and will still have gender fields. Rickhoff, who was out of town on Friday, has also called for the “de-gendering” of state forms.
That might be easier said than done as the ruling already has received push-back from religious and conservative groups. Gov. Greg Abbott issued a defiant statement Friday morning, condemning the Supreme Court’s decision.
“The Supreme Court has abandoned its role as an impartial judicial arbiter and has become an unelected nine-member legislature. Five Justices on the Supreme Court have imposed on the entire county their personal views on an issue that the Constitution and the Court’s previous decisions reserve to the people of the States,” Abbott stated. “Despite the Supreme Court’s rulings, Texans’ fundamental right to religious liberty remains protected. No Texan is required by the Supreme Court’s decision to act contrary to his or her religious beliefs regarding marriage. … Later today, I will be issuing a directive to state agencies instructing them to prioritize the protection of Texans’ religious liberties.”
Update at 2:30 p.m.: Gov. Abbott issued that directive Friday afternoon, which seemed to set up the argument for county and state employees that would refuse a same-sex couple a marriage application or license. “… In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, the law’s promise of religious liberty will be tested by some who seek to silence and marginalize those whose conscience will not allow them to participate in or endorse marriages that are incompatible with their religious beliefs. … All state agency heads should ensure that no one acting on behalf of their agency takes any adverse action against any person, as defined in Chapter 311 of the Texas Government Code, on account of the person’s act or refusal to act that is substantially motivated by sincere religious belief,” stated Abbott.
But the Supreme Court’s ruling was clear: it is now illegal for any state to deny a same-sex marriage. Federal law trumps state law. The 2005 same-sex marriage ban in Texas will not be excepted.
“It’s the law of the land and we need to respect their rights. Love conquered, I guess,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff after passing through the halls, surprised to see it so crowded.
After waiting more than two hours for the county clerk and district attorney to finalize the process, Truho and Stern were the first same-sex couple to obtain a marriage license in Bexar County. They’re looking to be married before a judge right away, although their license is valid for 90 days. All couples looking to get married right away after obtaining a license must request the 72-hour waiting period be waived by a district court judge.
Judge Karen H. Pozza, the presiding judge for the month of June, will be hearing those requests. She has already approved several and same-sex couples have been getting married all afternoon. The ceremonies will continue into the night. Couples that are in the Paul Elizondo Tower, 101 W. Nueva, by 6 p.m. today will be issued a license. The office opens again on Monday at 8 a.m.
As for the “gendered” state marriage application, “If I was filling it out, I might consider just drawing a line through (the ‘male’ or ‘female’ label),” said Tom Koenig, chief deputy of operations at the clerk’s office.
Koening married his partner of 42 years last year in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “After 40 years, we said, ‘How much longer are we going to wait?’”
He’s happy with his New Mexico license. “I wouldn’t want to go through the process again … all that waiting in line. Texas has to recognize our marriage anyway.”
Justice Kennedy’s ruling concluded:
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.The Constitution grants them that right.
“The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.”
It is so ordered.”
Updated at 3 p.m.: Robert Salcido, field organizer for Equality Texas, said the political and social momentum for marriage equality has been building for decades. A combination of public opinion, that 36 states had already legalized same-sex marriage, and previous Supreme Court rulings in favor of it has set the stage for today’s Supreme Court ruling.
“It just really built up and pointed us in a favorable ruling,” he said. “We are so glad that five of the justices were on the right side of history and now we have this momentous occasion today that we can celebrate.”
Equality Texas is organizing two events this evening. At 6 p.m. an interfaith celebration at the Good Shephard Lutheran Church, 1630 Goliad Rd., will host a champagne toast and wedding ceremonies with Freedom to Marry. Also at 6 p.m., people will gather on the steps of the Bexar County Courthouse to celebrate with the local chapter of the Human Rights Campaign.
*Featured/top image: Judge Karen Pozza weds Tiana Rei Lucas and Kelly Anne Motley. Photo by Scott Ball.