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Same-sex marriage comes to Louisiana 

After the U.S. Supreme Court decision, New Orleans saw its first gay weddings

click to enlarge At the Jackson Square rally following the Supreme Court decision
  • At the Jackson Square rally following the Supreme Court decision

Celeste Autin and Alesia LeBoeuf met 38 years ago at L.W. Higgins High School in Marrero. While LeBoeuf played in a powder-puff football game, Autin looked on from the stands. A mutual friend introduced them. "We've been inseparable ever since," LeBoeuf said.

  They were the first couple to receive a same-sex marriage license in Louisiana — partly because they both work in the Jefferson Parish Clerk of Court office, the first in the state to issue same-sex marriage licenses. They had to go back to work after getting their license June 29, and the two have planned their wedding ceremony for July 9.

  "It's not so much about being the first one to get the license as it is just getting a license and having the opportunity to marry the one you've always wanted to be with your whole life," LeBoeuf told Gambit. "Now we can have the benefits other people have. If I'm in critical condition or she's in critical condition in the hospital, you don't have to get told by a doctor or anyone that 'you're not a family member.'"

  In the hallway, LeBoeuf hugged Earl Benjamin of New Orleans. Benjamin and his partner, Michael Robinson, were the first to apply for a same-sex marriage license in New Orleans after the June 26 U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage in all 50 states. They were turned down the first time. They were back to apply again in New Orleans when they got word that Jefferson Parish was issuing licenses. Benjamin drove to Gretna and brought the license to Orleans Parish Civil District Court, where Judge Paula A. Brown was prepared to marry them, waiving the 72-hour waiting time.

  "I pronounce you, Michael Robinson, and you, Earl Benjamin Jr., to be legally married spouses under the laws of this nation in the state of Louisiana," Brown said. "You may now kiss your spouse."

  It was a scene repeated across the state. In Lafayette Parish, six couples received licenses on the first day. In Caddo Parish, Troy Foster and Cassidy Jennings of Shreveport were the first to get a license. Jennings, clad in a baseball cap, overalls and a big smile, told KTBS-TV, "I can't stop shaking."

  On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the matter of Obergefell v. Hodges, opening the door to same-sex marriage in the 13 states where it was not yet legal, including Louisiana. But almost three full days later, there was only one state where a same-sex marriage license hadn't been issued: Louisiana.

click to enlarge celebrants at the Southern Decadence says "I Do" party.
  • celebrants at the Southern Decadence says "I Do" party.

  "Of course we're going to comply with the court order. We don't have a choice," Gov. Bobby Jindal said on June 28's edition of Meet the Press, adding that he was waiting for a U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision. The appellate court had heard oral arguments on a lower court ruling against same-sex marriage, but delayed a ruling while the U.S. Supreme Court considered the issue.

  Meanwhile, Jefferson Parish Clerk of Court Jon Gegenheimer — a staunch conservative — consulted his office's attorney and determined that the high court's ruling was clear. Jefferson thus became the state's first parish to issue a license to a same-sex couple.

  It would not be the last. Several other parishes followed, one by one. By mid-afternoon June 29, the Louisiana Clerks of Court Association (LCCA) sent an email to its members reversing its earlier recommendation to wait for the Fifth Circuit Court ruling. Instead, LCCA Executive Director Debbie Hudnall advised, "Our attorney says you can issue the license as soon as your office is ready to do so."

  With that, many parishes that had taken a wait-and-see attitude opened their license bureaus to everyone.

  The Fifth Circuit reversed its ruling on July 1 and sent the case back to U.S. District Court — which reversed its decision July 2, opening all doors to same-sex marriage in Louisiana. Jindal, out of courts to rely on, had to follow the court's orders.

Shortly after the initial ruling, Mayor Mitch Landrieu issued a statement of congratulations, saying, "As the mayor of a city that has long embraced the principles of inclusion, tolerance and diversity, I am more than pleased to see the Supreme Court and the United States embrace these same principles. Today, our great country takes another step toward becoming a more perfect union."

click to enlarge A rainbow wedding cake
  • A rainbow wedding cake

  That night at a rally in Jackson Square, a majority of the New Orleans City Council showed up in support, including Council President Jason Williams, District A Councilwoman Susan Guidry, District C Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey and District D Councilman Jared Brossett. Addressing the crowd, Williams took a swipe at Jindal, saying, "No matter how backwards or ignorant our governor is, in the state of Louisiana, love is love, and love has been decriminalized."

  Not everyone was happy, however. Besides Jindal, every other declared candidate for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination made it clear he or she was against same-sex marriage. Some, like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, were muted but philosophical; others (including Jindal) were far more dramatic — as were many pundits.

  Rod Dreher — a St. Francisville resident and senior editor of The American Conservative — took to Time magazine to sound an alarm. "Orthodox Christians must understand that things are going to get much more difficult for us," Dreher wrote. "We are going to have to learn how to live as exiles in our own country.

  "We are going to have to learn how to live with at least a mild form of persecution," Dreher added, seemingly without recognizing that gay people could have claimed the same for generations.

click to enlarge cover_story-4.jpg

  In New Orleans, home to large populations of Catholics and gays (and gay Catholics), Archbishop Gregory Aymond struck a muted tone. "I stand with the Catholic bishops of the United States as we had hoped there would have been another means of moving forward in society without redefining marriage and family life," he wrote in a statement. "While we stand firm in this belief, as Christians we must extend respect to all and treat all of God's children with dignity even in disagreement. We cannot be disrespectful but always loving in witnessing our faith. Disrespect and hatred can never be condoned."

Some found it strange that Orleans Parish — the state's most LGBT-friendly parish, with a sizable gay population and large wedding and tourism industries — was not issuing licenses downtown. Unlike every other parish in the state, Orleans falls under the state Bureau of Vital Statistics, a division of the Louisiana Department of Health & Hospitals. As a state agency, the bureau answers to Jindal. New Orleans couples with a license, however, were able to get married at 2nd City Court in Algiers.

  On June 29, Jindal counsel Thomas Enright Jr. made public a legal memorandum citing the governor's "Marriage & Conscience Order," issued in May, and hinting that clerks whose religious beliefs didn't include same-sex marriage may not have to issue licenses to gay couples. "The ruling in Obergefell does not permit states to bar same-sex couples from marriage," Enright wrote, "but the ruling in no way forces specific individuals to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs, or to perform or facilitate same sex marriages."

click to enlarge Alesia LeBoeuf and Celeste Autin were the first same-sex couple in Louisiana to get a marriage license.
  • Alesia LeBoeuf and Celeste Autin were the first same-sex couple in Louisiana to get a marriage license.

  Enright added, "If any such state employee or official who asserts a religious objection is faced with a legal challenge for doing so, numerous attorneys have committed to defend their rights free of charge."

  One day later, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Forum for Equality Foundation and six individuals filed suit against Jindal, claiming the scope of the order goes beyond his purview as an elected official. "Gov. Jindal has violated the Louisiana Constitution by setting up special protections for those who share his belief system," ACLU Louisiana President Marjorie Esman said in a statement. "In our country, no one is above the law, including the governor. He swore to uphold the laws of Louisiana. This lawsuit seeks to hold him to that oath."

  As the lawyers and politicians tussled over the issue, the licenses kept coming.

Besides the LGBT community, two other groups were thrilled with the Supreme Court decision: the tourism and wedding industries.

  The Rev. Tony Talavera of the French Quarter Wedding Chapel says he has performed 500 same-sex marriages over the last decade, but the ceremonies weren't "official." Following the Supreme Court ruling, he says, some same-sex couples are booking their weddings at the chapel in anticipation of New Orleans allowing them to seek marriage licenses. "We did a wedding the day before the ruling and told them to come back with their license," Talavera said.

click to enlarge At the Jackson Square rally following the Supreme Court decision.
  • At the Jackson Square rally following the Supreme Court decision.

  "It's going to be good for our state, and maybe we can get our politicians to become more progressive," he said. "This is one step to get rid of discrimination. In our state, [New Orleans] should be the first one, not down the line."

  Like Talavera, the city's official tourism arm applauded the ruling. The city already had been marketing itself directly to LGBT tourists, said Kristian Sonnier, vice president of communications and public relations at the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

  "I don't like to speculate what it's going to do to tourism numbers," Sonnier said of the ruling, "but I can say that it will cement New Orleans as the diverse, inclusive, welcoming place that it's always been.

  "I think the executive order (Jindal's "religious freedom" order) cast a shadow of doubt on that. The Supreme Court ruling kind of erased all that doubt. Those people that were afraid to come to New Orleans then should have no fear now."

click to enlarge At the "I Do" victory party.
  • At the "I Do" victory party.

  An event called "Southern Decadence Says 'I Do'," a sort of mini-wedding expo for the LGBT community, had been planned for the night of June 26. It quickly turned into a victory party.

  "We planned this party not knowing," organizer Tony Leggio said. "We thought the decision was going to be Monday, so we had no idea this was going to happen today. Could we not have asked for better timing?"

  As guests chatted about the decision and danced to ABBA, Leggio said he thought Jindal and Caldwell's objections to the Supreme Court ruling were political rather than personal.

  "Jindal has 0 percent approval rating," Leggio said. "What he is doing is trying to make a name for himself. I don't think he cares one way or the other about gay marriage. In my heart of hearts, I think that man could care less about who gets married and who doesn't. He just wants to have his name out there.

click to enlarge New Orleans City Council President Jason Williams addressed the victory rally, calling Gov. Bobby Jindal "backwards and ignorant."
  • New Orleans City Council President Jason Williams addressed the victory rally, calling Gov. Bobby Jindal "backwards and ignorant."

  "We're your brothers, we're your sisters, we're your sons and daughters, your co-workers, your parishioners. Don't you want us to be happy? Don't you want us to be as happy as you are? We pay taxes like you do."

  For party attendee Jason Ashford, it was an emotional day; he fought back tears as he told his story of growing up a Southern Baptist in the small town of Watson, Texas. He was on an RTA bus going to work when he got the news of the Supreme Court ruling.

  "I had chills," he said. "I had goosebumps up my arms and everything."

click to enlarge Michael Robinson (top left) and Earl Benjamin were the first same-sex couple to wed in New Orleans.
  • Michael Robinson (top left) and Earl Benjamin were the first same-sex couple to wed in New Orleans.

Ashford is single. He told Gambit that not everyone in his family knows he's gay. "With my family, this decision won't make [the conversation easier]," Ashford said. "In the general public I think, yes, it will make the conversation easier. Because it's now out there. It's on the front burner.

  "Especially with people who know people who are gay."

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