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Dueling Republicans place Pike County probate judge’s office at epicenter of new gay marriage debate

By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

A storm is brewing over Pike County as Republican primary candidates battle over same-sex marriage licenses. One Republican wants to make Pike County a welcoming center for same-sex couples; the other wants to stay out of the marriage business.

Retiring Pike County Probate Judge Wes Allen in February of 2015, ended the practice of granting marriage licenses to anyone in the county as a result of the hotly debated same-sex marriage ruling that put Alabama in the national spotlight.

Allen is now running for the State House of Representatives, which leaves his probate judge office up for grabs. Judge Allen’s stance on marriage is a crucial point of contention between the two Republican candidates running to fill his seat.

While same-sex couples have every legal right to marry, according to federal law in Alabama, a probate judge doesn’t have an obligation to issue marriage licenses to anyone.

Michael Bunn and Alton Starling are both first time candidates and qualified with the Pike County Republican Party last month, but a big divide has already emerged in the philosophies of the two campaigns. Bunn, a local attorney, stated that he would continue Judge Allen’s policy of not issuing marriage licenses of any kind within the walls of the Pike County Courthouse.

“More than 80 percent of Pike County voters affirmed their belief that marriage should be defined as being between one man and one woman when they voted for the Alabama Sanctity of Marriage Act,” said Bunn. “My job as Probate Judge will be to represent the people of Pike County, and they have made it very clear that they support the decision that Wes Allen made.” Bunn further stated, “I will not put Pike County, Alabama back into the marriage business. It is just unnecessary to enact a policy that is contrary to Pike County values.”

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Starling, a City of Troy employee, has different plans for the probate judge’s office. During the Deer Stand Hill podcast, Starling told host Duncan Lindsey that he would reinstate the issuance of marriage licenses and would issue licenses to both heterosexual and same-sex couples.

“People are saying that it is a sin to have either two men or two women marry each other. Whatever,” Starling said on the podcast. “I think you should issue the license.”

Starling, who does not have any legal education or training, does not seem to have a clear understanding of Alabama law. The current statute does not require probate judges to issue marriage licenses. Alabama Code Section 30-1-9 states that probate judges may issue marriage licenses but are not required to do so. Allen cited this rule when he, along with several other Republican probate judges, chose not to issue marriage licenses to anyone, rather than be forced to sign a license for same-sex couples. The decision to discontinue the issuance of marriage licenses entirely is in compliance with both state and federal laws.

Pike County was the center of the gay marriage debate in 2015, and it appears that this will be a heated topic as the race for probate judge fires up in one of the most conservative counties in the state.

Bunn and Starling will face off in the county’s June 5th Republican primary.

Podcast can be heard at here.

This topic is discussed at 10:18 mark.

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Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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