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St. Louis County Decides To Issue Same-Sex Marriage Licenses. Will Other Counties Follow Now?

Lilly Leyh, left, and Sadie Pierce wait to get their marriage license in November 2014 at the St. Louis recorder of deeds office.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio file photo

After Wednesday's ruling that Missouri's same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional, offices in St. Louis and St. Louis County have begun issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

But so far, other counties in Missouri have expressed reluctance at issuing their own.

The Recorders' Association of Missouri, an organization that all recorders of deeds are part of, has advised recorders outside of the city of St. Louis not to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

"On the advice of the association's attorney, that guidance has been sent out to all recorders throughout the state," said Jan Jones, the president of the Recorders' Association of Missouri.

"It is in her opinion -- and we are following her opinion -- that the ruling is specific to the recorder of deeds in the city of St. Louis. If you read the last page of the judgment, that's pretty much what it says."

The last page of the ruling by St. Louis Circuit Judge Rex Burlison has been the source of some confusion: To whom does the order apply? The portion of the last page that Jones cites states:

"The Court FINDS and DECLARES that Defendant and any future Recorder of Deeds and Vital Records Registrar of the City of St. Louis has the authority to issue marriage licenses to any same sex couple that satisfies all the requirements for marriage under Missouri law, other than being of different sexes."

Since that order doesn't refer to other recorders, it doesn't apply to other recorders, Jones argues.

However, other portions of Wednesday's ruling are much more broad.

Just a couple paragraphs above, the judge states that Missouri's ban is unconstitutional and that "any same sex couple that satisfies all the requirements for marriage under Missouri law, other than being of different sexes, is legally entitled to a marriage license."

When we asked the attorney general's office if the order applies throughout the state, Chris Koster's spokesperson, NanciGonder, responded: "As a matter of legal precedent, the decision is binding on the parties before the court."

The state of Missouri is a party to the lawsuit. And that means the ruling should apply throughout the state, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri.

"I think it's clear that it applies to applies to any same-sex couple in this state, and that's particularly true because the state of Missouri is a party to this case and is bound by this decision," said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri.

Lawyers for St. Louis County agreed, and that's why the county began issuing marriage licenses Thursday morning.

"In reviewing the order, we found nothing that restricts it to the city of St. Louis," Eugene Leung, director of revenue for St. Louis County, said.

We asked Jones if we could speak to the recorders' association's attorney to ask about her conclusion that the order applies only to St. Louis. Jones said it was an attorney in private practice and would not give her name or contact information.

Rothert said the ACLU of Missouri is not likely to file suit against counties currently not issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, largely because there are numerous other suits on the issue. In a separate case resolved last month, a judge said Missouri must recognize the marriage of same-sex couples who wed outside of the state. Rothert said the ACLU has another case in federal court, as well as a case before the Missouri Supreme Court about same-sex divorces.

"We're going to see how this plays out in the next few days and weeks," Rothert said. "Hopefully more and more counties will begin to issue marriage licenses. As more analysis is given to this decision [by recorders], at a minimum the attorney general cannot come in and stop them, so they have the green light to do it if they wish."

Follow Chris McDaniel on Twitter@csmcdaniel