By Eric Reed
Editor’s note: Baptist news editors met in coastal Alabama this week. Look for stories in the Illinois Baptist and online over the next few weeks.
Orange Beach, Ala. | It’s a wonder the local paper didn’t call this “The Battle of Mobile Gay.” This is, after all, the place where in 1864 Admiral Farragut famously condemned the torpedoes and ran his ship “full speed ahead” past Confederate forts and mines (called “torpedoes”) tethered in the Bay.
The 2015 version had attorneys dueling on the courthouse steps and clerks inside shuttering the marriage license window because the probate judge refused to accept applications from same-sex couples.
“I’m plumb ashamed of this town,” one applicant said outside the courthouse on Monday when he and his partner were unable to get married. On Thursday, that same man declared, “In Alabama! I never would’ve believed it!” as he waved his new license in the air with one arm and hugged his new spouse with the other.
Between Monday and Thursday, the Battle:
A federal judge in Mobile, Callie Granade (pronounced like the ammunition), had ruled Alabama’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional on January 23. Marriage licenses were to be issued starting Monday. But on Sunday night, Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Roy Moore told the state’s probate court judges, who issue marriage licenses here, that the federal ruling did not apply to them.
On Monday, it was reported 60 counties started processing applications from same-sex couples; seven did not, including the state’s second most populous county, Mobile. Probate judge Don Davis ordered the license window, festooned with purple and gold Mardi Gras masks, shuttered. No licenses were issued to any couples, same-sex or otherwise.
By Wednesday, it was reported only 23 counties were issuing same-sex licenses.
Attorneys representing gay couples and Judge Davis went to court.
And Roy Moore went on TV.
The last time Moore opposed a higher court ruling, he was removed from the bench. That was over the monument to the Ten Commandments at the State Supreme Court. This time, Moore went to the court of public opinion.
For many observers, he appeared to win in Alabama, where his stance is based on a state’s right to amend its own constitution as 81% voters did in 2006, limiting marriage to the traditional, biblical definition. But on TV, against CNN’s Chris Cuomo, Moore lost, according to national pundits who gave the win to the news anchor/attorney.
It didn’t matter. Late Thursday, Granade ruled again. Probate courts must issue marriage licenses to all couples, despite the state constitution. And today, Friday, it is reported all counties’ license offices are open for business.
Frankly, in Alabama, many would never have believed it. I wouldn’t, because I grew up here.
As Baptist editors gathered for their annual conclave to hear reports from SBC entity heads and discuss journalism, I was also looking forward to a short visit to my old home. I didn’t expect to see history made.
I learned to report from that federal courthouse where TV reporters waited this week for the rulings, reporting breathlessly at 5, 6, and 10 on the latest developments—or lack of them. I covered the same county governments at the place where a half-dozen gay couples were wed in the hour after the marriage license office reopened. And I thought I understood this coastal town where half the people are Baptist and the other half are Catholic, and their alliance has kept the politics and the morals mostly conservative for 300 years.
Leaders of the Baptist state convention in Alabama quickly commented: “The vast and overwhelming majority of Alabama Baptist leaders and other church members continue to affirm the biblical view of marriage and the historic declarations that Alabama Baptists have made concerning the marriage relationship,” executive director Rick Lance said.
But the comment did not appear on local newscasts in Mobile.
I did hear a comment from an SBC leader at this meeting that demands my consideration. Given the rapid liberalization of public opinion on same-sex marriage and other moral issues, is it possible that pastors and leaders of SBC entities will find themselves heading organizations that are more conservative than the people in the pews—especially younger people? (That’s just the opposite of what happened in mainline denominations in the second half of the 20th century, when leaders grew far more liberal than church members.) Our church members will be shifted by the tide of public opinion, he said, if we pastors and teachers don’t provide a firmer biblical foundation.
And the next wave is coming soon. From here, it’s full speed ahead to the U.S. Supreme Court, where a ruling possibly in June is likely to determine the legality of same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Expect Southern Baptists to speak to that, but will anyone listen?
The Baptists came to Alabama this week, but that wasn’t news. The world changed while we were here. That’s the news.
Eric Reed is editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper and associate executive director for the Church Communications team of the Illinois Baptist State Association.