- Associated Press - Sunday, June 14, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - A judge’s ruling that Arkansas must recognize more than 500 same-sex marriages that were performed in state last year throws a new wrinkle in a legal fight that’s been sitting before the state Supreme Court for more than a year now.

It also offers a preview of the questions the state will face if either the Arkansas or U.S Supreme Court legalize gay marriage later this year.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen’s decision ordering the state to recognize the licenses that were issued to same-sex couples during a weeklong period last year is far more limited and less dramatic than the decision that temporarily legalized gay marriage.

“With shameless disrespect for fundamental fairness and equality, (Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration Director Larry Walther) insists on treating the marriages of same-sex couples who received marriage licenses between May 9 and May 15 as ‘void from inception as a matter of law,’” Griffen wrote in his ruling.

Griffen’s ruling wasn’t much of a surprise. An ordained Baptist minister, Griffen presided over some of the same-sex wedding ceremonies at the courthouse after the marriage ban was struck down last year. Though he didn’t weigh in on the constitutionality of gay marriage, Griffen’s order called the decision striking down the marriage ban “courageous and plainly stated.”

Judge Chris Piazza’s ruling last year striking down the voter-approved gay marriage ban and related state laws created a rush to local courthouses by same-sex couples eager to make their unions official. A day before Griffen issued his ruling, attorneys recounted the dizzying days and legal wrangling that followed Piazza’s May 2014 ruling.

“This was definitely a very confusing time,” Assistant Attorney General Colin Jorgensen told Griffen last week.

Griffen’s order is unlikely to create the same level of confusion, since it’s limited to the couples who were married in the window between Piazza’s ruling and the state Supreme Court putting a halt to gay marriages while they considered the state’s appeal. And his ruling is unlikely to create the same dramatic rush of couples to file new tax forms, sign up for each other’s state insurance policies or even divorce, all of which are allowed by the state recognizing the marriages.

The ruling offers gay couples at least an incremental victory after seeing the fight over same-sex marriage stall before the state Supreme Court months after the case was argued before justices. The reason for the delay - a dispute over which justices should hear the case - has been resolved and justices have rejected an effort for a new round of oral arguments. But justices have given no indication when they’ll rule.

They could get beaten to the punch by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to rule this month on whether gay marriage should be legal nationwide. Griffen’s case touches on some of the same issues the state will face if either court strikes down gay marriage bans on matters ranging from birth certificates to custody disputes.

Whether the state will have to address those questions now remains to be seen. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Republican who has vowed to defend the state’s gay marriage ban, has stopped short of saying whether she’ll seek a stay of Griffen’s order.

But the attorney for the two couples who sued the state over the licenses said the ruling at least provides some certainty after more than a year of living in limbo.

“They finally got some major progress they’ve been waiting so long for,” attorney Cheryl Maples said. “They’ve been married over a year now and as of right now they’re really married.”

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Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

An AP News Analysis

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