AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Last summer, the United States Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is legal nationwide. But today, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court said that ruling doesn't apply to his state. In a defiant new order, Justice Roy Moore wrote that Alabama's probate judges must abide by the state's gay marriage ban already in place.
NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us now to explain. And Debbie, first, help us understand how a judge can rule that a U.S. Supreme Court decision just doesn't apply, in this case, to Alabama.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Well, let's clarify here. This is not a ruling in any legal case. This is simply an administrative order by the Alabama chief justice, Roy Moore. He's a chief justice who's well known for his defiance of federal courts. So this is just another step in that mission that he seems to have. He is using this order to lay out his argument that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling only applies to the four states whose laws were actually at issue in the specific case that was before the high court.
CORNISH: So what precisely did he say, what kind of language?
ELLIOTT: Well, he said that he was trying to clear up some confusion and uncertainty. And let me just explain to you the lay of the land in Alabama. Since the Supreme Court ruling, most of Alabama's 67 probate judges have been issuing marriage licenses to all couples, regardless of their sexual orientation.
But according to the ACLU of Alabama, about nine had stopped issuing the documents altogether. They'd just gotten out of the business. Well, Moore wrote that that disparity was affecting the administration of justice in the state, so he felt the need to issue this opinion. And in it, he ordered, you know, reiterating his position that was first issued back in March, that state officials have, quote, "a ministerial duty to uphold Alabama's constitutional ban on same-sex marriages."
CORNISH: So, what are the legal ramifications for the state order?
ELLIOTT: You know, that's really not clear. Most legal scholars will tell you it, you know, really doesn't have any legal ramifications. It has, however, prompted three more probate judges, just today, since the order came out, to stop issuing marriage licenses again. You know, they're confused again. They have been asking for clarity ever since there was this conflict between what Judge Moore and the Alabama Supreme Court had ordered and what federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Order, had said. So now there's just, you know, more confusion out there. Now Alabama's attorney general, Luther Strange, had immediately said after the Supreme Court's ruling that it is binding on state officials, whether they agree with it or not, it was the law of the land.
CORNISH: So what's likely to happen if some local judges follow Justice Moore's order and, say, turn away a same-sex couple?
ELLIOTT: You know, I think that'll be the question. They'll end up in federal court. You know, groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Human Rights Campaign who have been monitoring these cases say that, you know, you could be held in contempt of court if you don't honor the Supreme Court's ruling on marriage equality. So that's the question - what's going to happen if a couple goes in? They're going to have to go to the federal courts and try to clarify what is the actual law in Alabama.
CORNISH: Just a short time left, Debbie. The political reaction, what's going on in Alabama in response to this?
ELLIOTT: Well, right now just groups who are supportive of gay marriage say this means nothing. The Southern Poverty Law Center called it a dead letter. Other groups, including the lawyer for that Kentucky clerk who went to jail for refuse - (no audio) - sign same-sex marriage licenses, he applauded Judge Moore's stance.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott in Orange Beach, Ala. Debbie, thanks so much.
ELLIOTT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.