HAGATNA, Guam (Reuters) - The tiny U.S. Pacific territory of Guam moved a step closer to recognizing gay marriage on Wednesday as its attorney general directed the island’s public health officials to begin accepting marriage license applications from same-sex couples.
But the acting director of Guam’s Department of Public Health and Social Services, Leo Casil, balked at the order, telling Reuters his agency would not be accepting marriage applications from gay and lesbian couples at this time.
Further muddying the waters, Governor Eddie Calvo issued a statement saying his legal team was reviewing the attorney general’s position and suggesting that the issue could be decided by the territory’s legislature or its voters.
If Attorney General Elizabeth Barrett-Anderson prevails in her position, Guam would become the first U.S. Pacific or Caribbean territory to extent marriage rights to same sex couples. A legal challenge to a gay marriage ban in Puerto Rico is also pending.
In her directive on Wednesday, Barrett-Anderson cited the decision of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which has legal jurisdiction over Guam, striking down gay marriage bans in Idaho and Nevada as unconstitutional.
“Marriage is a fundamental right which cannot be denied based on gender,” Barret-Anderson wrote in a memo.
Her letter to the Public Health Department calling for the agency to accept and process marriage license applications from same-sex couples came two days after a lesbian couple, Loretta Pangelinan and Kathleen Aguero, brought suit in the U.S. District Court in Guam seeking the right to legally wed.
The couple said they had been denied a marriage license application.
It was not immediately clear on what basis Casil was declining to carry out the attorney general’s order. But he was quoted by the Pacific Daily News saying he would await a final decision from the governor, adding: “From my side, I just received a letter. It’s not a legal opinion.”
In 2009, a bill proposing to legalize civil unions between same-sex couples failed to pass the legislature, following a debate that polarized the predominantly Roman Catholic community on the island, which lies about 3,900 miles (6,276 kms) west of Hawaii.
(This story has been corrected to fix spelling of director’s name to Casil from Casales, and spelling of newspaper to Pacific Daily News from Pacific Daily)
Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Michael Perry