Forget the Lone Star State—as of Thursday, Texas is the lone-marriage state, with a single, legally wed gay couple.
It's a strange turn of events, and it's unclear whether the marriage between Sarah Goodfriend and Suzanne Bryant, who have been together for 31 years, will be upheld.
On Tuesday, a probate judge in Travis County—home to Austin, the state's liberal-leaning capital, ruled that Texas's gay-marriage ban was unconstitutional. The case at hand involved a woman whose partner died last year; the plaintiff Sonemaly Phrasavath wanted their relationship ruled a common-law marriage for estate purposes, and she won. (A federal judge previously made a similar ruling; that decision is stayed and under appeal.)
Goodfriend and Bryant then sued the county clerk and petitioned a state district judge in Austin for an emergency license, citing Goodfriend's ovarian cancer. The judge, David Wahlberg, ruled in their favor, ordering Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir to waive a 72-hour waiting period and issue a license. The couple were promptly married outside the county clerk's office—moving quickly to preempt any legal intervention—with their teenage daughters watching.
“It’s a very, very important day for our family. And it’s a very important day for everyone who believes in justice and equality,” Bryant told the American-Statesman. DeBeauvoir, who supports marriage equality, said that although she had issued the license, she would not issue any others unless ordered to do so by judges.
The state's Republican leaders reacted with horror. Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and Attorney General Ken Paxton all decried the ruling. Paxton appealed to the state supreme court to block both Wahlberg's ruling and Tuesday's decision, and received a stay. No one seems to know what exactly that means for Goodfriend and Bryant's license. The marriage was registered before the stay, but Paxton said in a statement it was invalid:
The Court’s action upholds our state constitution and stays these rulings by activist judges in Travis County. The same-sex marriage license issued by the Travis County Clerk is void, just as any license issued in violation of state law would be. I will continue to defend the will of the people of Texas, who have defined marriage as between one man and one woman, against any judicial activism or overreach.
Texas voters approved a gay-marriage ban in 2005 with more than three-quarters of the vote. In seeing that ban bent—if not yet broken—by judicial order, it joins many socially conservative states, from Utah to Alabama, in seeing laws overturned by courts. While rulings have pushed the envelope in those states, there's been a dramatic shift in favor of marriage equality over the last few years.
Whatever the outcome, it may not be relevant for long. The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is currently considering the stayed federal-court ruling that found Texas's ban to be unconstitutional. Regardless of the circuit court's decision, the Supreme Court has already agreed to hear cases on same-sex marriage later this year.
But Bryant said her now-wife's illness had made them want to tie the knot now rather than wait.
“We didn’t want to wait for the Supreme Court to make a decision,” she told the American-Statesman, adding that she hoped Paxton's countercharge would come to naught. “We can’t control what the AG’s office wants to do, but we have a valid marriage license."