A tiny county in the northern Florida Panhandle, facing the prospect of court-ordered gay marriage going into effect next month, filed an emergency motion on Tuesday asking a federal judge to clarify whether it must marry all gay couples.
The request follows statewide confusion over a U.S. Supreme Court order last week declining to extend a stay on a ruling that found the state's same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional. The order cleared the way for gay marriages to begin on Jan. 6.
The state association of court clerks interpreted the order to apply only to Washington County, which was cited in the case. Accordingly, the group asked officials in the county to seek clarification in federal court on behalf of the state's 66 other counties.
Instead, Washington's county attorney filed a motion asking whether the order applies only to the two men involved in the case, or to all couples who may seek licenses there.
That could mean thousands of couples flocking to the small town of Chipley, a rural crossroads in the far Panhandle.
"We're kind of the guinea pigs walking through it, but we will issue a marriage license on Jan. 6," said Jeff Goodman, the attorney for Washington County. "The question is whether it's going to be one or going to be multiples."
He said it was in the county's best interests to file a narrow appeal to U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle of Florida's Northern District in Tallahassee, who in August became the first federal judge to strike down the state's same-sex marriage ban, passed in 2008.
The high court's order would make gay marriage legal in 36 states, including Florida.
Gay activists have threatened to sue any counties that do not grant licenses once the stay runs out.
"Clerks who refuse to issue marriage licenses are violating the constitutional rights of Floridians," said Nadine Smith, chief executive officer of the advocacy group Equality Florida.
"They will face costly litigation and the enduring shame of history," she added in a statement.