The chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court ordered the state's probate judges on Wednesday not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, despite a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court last year legalizing gay marriage.
Chief Justice Roy Moore said judges have a duty to uphold the state's law banning same-sex marriage while the Alabama Supreme Court weighs the effect of the national ruling on the state.
Legal experts and gay marriage activists rebuked the directive, noting the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision last June provided same-sex couples the right to marry in all 50 states.
A federal judge in Alabama also overturned the state's ban on same-sex marriage last year.
"Roy Moore has advised the probate judges to do something that would be in contempt of court," said Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. "It's going to be ignored."
One probate judge, Steven Reed in Montgomery, Alabama, said he would not heed the administrative order.
"Judge Moore's latest charade is just sad & pathetic," Reed posted on Twitter.
Moore wrote in his order that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling was at odds with a decision last March by the Alabama Supreme Court that instructed probate judges to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The conflicting opinions had resulted in "confusion and uncertainty," Moore said, with many probate judges issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples while others refused to do so.
"This disparity affects the administration of justice in this state," he wrote.
Until the Alabama Supreme Court decides the matter, probate judges "have a ministerial duty not to issue any marriage license contrary" to the state's law banning same-sex marriage, Moore said.
A lawyer for Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, who spent six days in jail in September for contempt of court after refusing to sign gay marriage licenses, applauded Moore's stance.
"The opinion of five lawyers on the U.S. Supreme Court regarding same-sex marriage is lawless and without legal or historical support," Mat Staver, chairman of the Liberty Counsel legal group, said in a statement.
Moore, a Republican, has been a hero of conservative causes before. In 2003, he was removed from office after a federal judge ruled he was placing himself above the law by refusing to take down a Ten Commandments monument.
He won the chief justice job back in 2012, vowing not to do anything to create further friction with the federal courts.
(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, N.C.; Additional reporting by Steve Bittenbender in Louisville, Kentucky; Editing by Tom Brown and Sandra Maler)