A third Colorado county began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples on July 11 even though the legal fight is far from resolved in the state.
Pueblo County joined Denver and Boulder County in allowing gay couples to marry a day after a state judge ruled the Boulder clerk can continue issuing the licenses.
Colorado’s 2006 voter-approved gay marriage ban remains on the books. But District Court Judge Andrew Hartman noted it is “hanging on by a thread” following rulings by another state court and the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In Denver, clerk Debra Johnson began granting marriage licenses to gay couples shortly after Hartman issued his ruling. She gave licenses to 17 gay couples on July 10.
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers had sought to block the issuing of licenses, warning of “legal chaos.” In a statement this week, he pledged to go to the state Supreme Court as soon as possible “to prevent a legal patchwork quilt from forming.”
In Boulder County, more than 100 couples have married since its clerk started issuing licenses two weeks ago, when the appeals court found Utah’s gay marriage ban unconstitutional.
The ruling became law in all six 10th Circuit states – including Colorado – but the panel immediately put it on hold while Utah appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court.
On July 9, District Judge C. Scott Crabtree struck down Colorado’s ban, joining multiple other judges who have done the same in other states. Crabtree also placed his ruling on hold while the legal battle plays out.
Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has asked Suthers, a Republican, not to appeal.
“The decision on marriage by Judge Crabtree puts Colorado on the right side of history,” Hickenlooper said.
In the Boulder case, Hartman found the licenses were harmless and an acceptable form of civil disobedience. But he required that all couples be warned their marriage could lack legal value if a court later upholds Colorado’s ban.
His decision left clerks around the state trying to figure out what to do next.
They must weigh the risk of issuing licenses that might become invalid with violating people’s rights by declining to do so, Mesa County Clerk Sheila Reiner said. “It’s sort of a rock and a hard place,” she said.
There is no guarantee the nation’s highest court will take the case when it returns in October. But situations like the one in Colorado add to the pressure for a final, definitive ruling on gay marriage in the U.S.
Same-sex marriage is legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia, but it’s in limbo in much of the rest of the nation. Seemingly every week, another gay marriage ban is struck down. Sometimes marriages start immediately; other times the rulings are put on hold and nothing happens.