PHOENIX – Gay marriage is now legal in Arizona after the state’s conservative attorney general said Friday that he wouldn’t challenge a federal court decision that cleared the way for same-sex unions in the state.
After the surprise decision, gay couples quickly lined up at the courthouse in downtown Phoenix to marry.
It was a sharp turn. Less than a year ago, Arizona was ground zero in the clash over gay rights after the overwhelmingly Republican state Legislature passed a measure that would have allowed businesses to deny service to gays and lesbians.
Also Friday, the Justice Department announced that the federal government will recognize same-sex marriages in seven more states and extend federal benefits to same-sex couples.
That brings the total number of states where gay and lesbian marriages have federal recognition to 26, plus the District of Columbia.
And a federal judge on Friday ordered Wyoming to allow same-sex marriage but said his ruling will not take effect until next Thursday so that the state can appeal if it wants.
The news came one week after the U.S. Supreme Court let stand rulings from three appeals courts that struck down bans on gay marriages in five states: Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin. That opened the door for same-sex couples in those states to get married, though it stopped short of resolving the national gay-marriage issue.
The states covered by Friday’s announcement include those five states as well as Nevada and Colorado, where the Justice Department says subsequent rulings have allowed the federal government to recognize same-sex messages.
The Arizona decision follows two weeks of nonstop court rulings across the nation, with judges striking down bans on same-sex unions and conservative state officials pushing back in a struggle that has increasingly gone in favour of gay marriage supporters.
David Larance and Kevin Patterson, who were among the couples who sued to overturn Arizona’s same-sex marriage ban, were married to cheers on the courthouse lawn. “This is a great day,” Patterson said. “I never thought this would happen in Arizona.”
Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s action this month, same-sex couples have begun to wed in several new states.
And with court decisions Friday that apply to Arizona and Alaska, more than 30 states now extend marriage rights to gay couples, and cases are pending in several others.
Arizona’s governor, Jan Brewer, who has clashed with President Barack Obama over immigration and other issues, said in a statement that federal courts have thwarted the will of voters and eroded the state’s power to regulate laws.
“Simply put, courts should not be in the business of making and changing laws based on their personal agendas,” Brewer said.
Nearly eight months ago, Brewer vetoed a bill that would have protected people who assert their religious belief in refusing service to gays. It would have allowed people to claim their religious beliefs as a defence against claims of discrimination. Critics called it an open attack on gay people.
The proposal set off a national debate over religion and discrimination. Companies such as Apple Inc. and American Airlines urged Brewer to veto the bill, saying it would hurt the state and could alienate businesses looking to expand there.