Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffen ruled Tuesday (June 9) that same sex couples who married May 10-16, 2014 in Arkansas, must be provided the same access to state employee benefits as male-female married couples.
The ruling is from a case in which Angelia Frazier-Henson and Katherine Henson and Markett Humphries and Dianna Christy sued Larry Walther, director of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration (DFA), because he would not allow them to jointly file their 2014 Arkansas income tax return. Also, Humphries and Christy sued because Walther and the DFA would not allow Christy to enroll as a spouse on Humphries’ health insurance plan. Humphries is a state employee.
Creating the need for the lawsuit was the May 2014 ruling by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza that Arkansas’ ban on gay marriage – through Amendment 83 approved by voters in 2004 – was unconstitutional. Licenses were issued briefly in some counties across the state, but a stay was eventually issued halting same sex marriages in Arkansas while the case goes through the appeals process. It was estimated that as many as 500 marriages were performed between May 10 and May 16 before the stay was issued.
Walther argued that Piazza’s ruling and subsequent stay did not remove the state’s authority to ban same-sex marriage, and as such the marriages are not legal and should not be recognized by the state. However, Walther’s arguments were panned by Griffen – who is also a Baptist preacher and who officiated at some of the same-sex marriages held in the May window. In one section of the ruling Griffen said Walther’s position was one of “logical absurdity.”
“With shameless disrespect for fundamental fairness and equality, Director Walther insists on treating the marriages of same-sex couples who received marriage 13 licenses between May 9 and May 15 as ‘void from inception as a matter of law,’” Griffen wrote in the ruling.
In his conclusion Griffen noted: “Plaintiffs' prayer for injunctive relief is HEREBY GRANTED in all respects. Specifically, Director Walther is hereby and immediately (a) enjoined from denying the validity of Plaintiffs' marriage licenses, (b) enjoined from denying the validity of Plaintiffs' status as married persons, (c) enjoined from denying Plaintiffs from filing joint tax returns as married persons, and (d) enjoined from refusing to enroll same-sex spouses in the state health insurance plan on the sole basis that the applicant is a same-sex spouse.”
Continuing, he wrote: “Furthermore, Director Walther is HEREBY, and expressly mandated to (e) accept joint income tax returns and accept applications for state health insurance from same-sex couples who were married between May 10 and May 16, 2014, and (f) to henceforth extend to same-sex couples married between May 10 and May 16, 2014 the same rights, privileges, and benefits recognized for heterosexual marriages performed during those dates.” (Link here for the complete ruling.)
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge did not agree with Griffen’s ruling, but did not say what legal response she would have.
“These marriages do not fall within the State’s definition of marriage as between one man and one woman,” Rutledge said in a statement. “I am evaluating the ruling and will determine the best path forward to protect the State’s interest.”
Arkansas’ ban on same-sex marriage also has federal problems. U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker also has ruled that Amendment 83 is unconstitutional under the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Then-Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel appealed Baker’s ruling, but the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals said in April that would delay a decision on the constitutionality of Arkansas’ ban on same-sex marriage pending the outcome of a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. A ruling from the federal high court could come at any time.