- Associated Press - Friday, June 26, 2015

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Two men in their 80s got the first same-sex marriage license Friday in Dallas, some gay couples elsewhere were denied and Gov. Greg Abbott, dismayed by the Supreme Court’s ruling, ordered state agencies to respect religious objectors.

The decision that gays and lesbians have the same right to marry as any American reverberated quickly in Texas, which tumbled from the national forefront of opposition to a pastiche of euphoric couples rushing to county offices and Republican leaders parsing their defeat.

“We got it!” someone screamed in a Dallas County building as four couples waited for a decision and then marriage licenses.

Less than two hours after the ruling, Gena Dawson and Charlotte Rutherford of Austin were the first same-sex couple to hold a marriage license in Texas. Hundreds more couples followed, judges in Austin performed one gay wedding after another and owners of a Dallas comic book shop left customers a note on their locked door: “We’ll get married real quick and be back midday.”

Outside the civil courthouse in downtown Houston, crowds waved gay pride flags and one woman held up a sign reading, “Love is Love.” In San Antonio, Jordan and Donna Reed carried into the courthouse an envelope containing the $81 for a marriage license that that had been sitting on their kitchen table all week.

“There are two things I can’t wait to do: check ‘Married’ and to say ‘This is my wife’ and not my partner,” said Kristin Saunders, 41, of San Antonio.

Outside the liberal big cities of Texas, many counties held off on issuing same-sex marriage licenses until receiving guidance from Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, who was quick to scold the Supreme Court but left counties in limbo for hours.

At least two same-sex couples were denied in Denton County, where officials tacked a sign on the door saying their computer software couldn’t process licenses for gay couples. In Houston, where a lesbian mayor oversees the nation’s fourth-largest city, marriage licenses finally started being issued after the Harris County clerk reversed himself and said he wouldn’t wait for state approval.

Abbott delivered an unequivocal rebuke of the decision that wiped out Texas’ decade-old constitutional ban on gay marriage.

“Despite the Supreme Court’s rulings, Texans’ fundamental right to religious liberty remains protected,” Abbott said. “No Texan is required by the Supreme Court’s decision to act contrary to his or her religious beliefs regarding marriage.”

But a quickly issued directive from Abbott to state agencies after the ruling was less clear-cut.

In a two-page memo, Abbott ordered agency leaders that no one in their ranks could take “adverse action” against someone acting on their religious beliefs, including “granting or denying benefits.” That led to early confusion and questions over whether state agencies might deny health or retirement benefits to the spouses of gay employees.

Abbott spokesman John Wittman later issued a clarifying statement, saying the directive doesn’t order the denial of benefits to same-sex couples. He said it only “ensures that individuals doing business with the state cannot be discriminated against because of their religious beliefs.”

A gay couple who had been together for more than half a century were the first to be licensed and married in Dallas County. Jack Evans, who is 85 and walks with a cane, had a small rainbow gay pride flag tucked in his lapel while George Harris, 82, carried red roses as they left the ceremony at the Dallas County Records Building.

“We waited a long time for this,” said Harris, who met Evans in 1961 and kept their relationship secret for the first 20 years.

“It was a very scary period for us,” Harris said. “You couldn’t be open about anything.”

Texas was not part of the case before the Supreme Court. A federal judge in 2013 ruled that the state’s ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional but declined to enforce the ruling while it was on appeal.

Among the gay plaintiffs who sued Texas was Mark Phariss, a Plano attorney who was friends with Abbott in law school in the 1980s. When Abbott was paralyzed by a fallen tree in 1984, Pharris flew to Texas to sit bedside with his friend, and they exchanged Christmas cards for years.

After the ruling Friday, Phariss’ longtime partner, Vic Holmes, proposed to him. They are getting married in November, but Phariss said he was not inviting the governor.

“I don’t think that would be prudent,” he said.

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Associated Press Writers Jamie Stengle in Dallas, Seth Robbins in San Antonio, Jim Vertuno in Austin and Juan A. Lozano in Houston contributed to this report.

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Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber

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