Arkansas' troubled civil rights history casts shadow as gay marriage is debated

The Associated Press

James Porter, right, and his partner Shon DeArmon carry a flag in support of the county issuing marriage licenses for same-sex couples at the Pulaski County Courthouse in Little Rock, Ark., Monday, May 12, 2014. Dozens of gay couples, some of whom waited in line overnight, received licenses to marry from county clerks Monday, while lawyers for the state of Arkansas asked its highest court to suspend an order gutting a constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Fifty-seven years after federal troops escorted nine black students into Little Rock's Central High School as a white mob jeered, Arkansas again finds itself in the center of a debate over civil rights. This time, the issue is gay marriage, but the 1957 desegregation crisis still casts a shadow.

More than 200 gay couples have been issued marriage licenses in the Bible Belt state since a judge struck down Arkansas' same-sex marriage ban.

Gay rights supporters regularly invoke the 1957 desegregation battle, warning opponents that history may not look kindly on them. At the same time, those concerns may not resonate throughout Arkansas, where recent polling still shows heavy opposition to gay marriage.

Nearly a week before the ban was struck down, Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel cited the state's spotty civil rights history as he declared his support for marriage equality. While vowing to defend the ban in court, McDaniel became the first statewide elected official to endorse same-sex marriage.

McDaniel said he voiced his opinion because he wanted to avoid following the legacy of former Attorney General Bruce Bennett, who is little remembered after he didn't fight then-Gov. Orval Faubus' efforts to keep Little Rock's schools segregated in 1957.

"(Bennett) would have lost the election in '58 if he had done so, but his place in history ... would be different," McDaniel said.

McDaniel, a Democrat serving his final year in office, is now asking Arkansas' highest court to put on hold the decision that allowed gay couples to get married, saying it's his job as the state's top lawyer to defend the law even if he disagrees with it personally.

The fear of being judged harshly by history is a powerful one in a state that is still trying to shake off the effects of the Central High fight, including a desegregation settlement with three Little Rock-area school districts that has cost the state more than $1 billion over the past 25 years. A federal judge in January approved a wind-down of those payments.

At the same time, McDaniel's worries about opposing gay marriage may not resonate throughout Arkansas. Attitudes about gay marriage haven't moved significantly in the state in recent years, even as opinions have shifted nationwide.

The head of the group that campaigned for Arkansas' marriage ban says he doesn't view this debate as part of the civil rights struggle that led to Central High's desegregation.

"I grew up in the segregated South, and while I was never a victim of racial discrimination, I saw racial discrimination. I witnessed it," said Jerry Cox, president of the Arkansas Family Council. "The difficulties that African Americans faced in this part of the country in the 1950s and 60s, in my opinion, do not compare with what we're talking about today with same-sex marriage."

Other than McDaniel, none of the state's top Democrats have said they support gay marriage. And Republicans are already using Pulaski County Circuit Judge Piazza's ruling to rally their base.

"One member of the judicial system deciding that he is superior to the law is not only dangerous, but it is unconstitutional," the GOP said in a fundraising email Monday.

In his ruling, Piazza cast gay marriage as part of a broader struggle over civil rights, rejecting the idea that the ban could stand because 75 percent of voters approved it in 2004 as an amendment to the Arkansas Constitution. He cited the U.S. Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision that denied citizenship and constitutional protections to blacks before the Civil War.

"The court is not unmindful of the criticism that judges should not be super legislators," Piazza wrote. "However, the issue at hand is the fundamental right to marry being denied to an unpopular minority. Our judiciary has failed such groups in the past."