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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (Reuters) - Same-sex couples began marrying in parts of Alabama on Monday, acting on the strongest signal yet from the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of gay marriage ahead of an expected ruling, but numerous state judges avoided granting marriage licenses to gay couples in apparent defiance of the high court.
The Supreme Court earlier in the day cleared the way for Alabama to become the 37th state where gay marriage is legal by refusing a request by the state's Republican attorney general to keep weddings on hold until it decides later this year whether laws banning gay matrimony violate the U.S. Constitution.
But same-sex couples in more than 50 of Alabama's 67 counties encountered difficulties in getting marriage licenses, gay rights advocates said, with some counties refraining from issuing licenses to gay couples and others shutting down their marriage license operations altogether.
This followed an order by Roy Moore, the conservative chief justice of Alabama's Supreme Court, instructing probate judges to issue no marriage licenses to gay couples despite a federal court ruling in January throwing out the state's gay marriage ban, effective on Monday.
Moore's chief of staff said the directive still stood despite Monday's U.S. Supreme Court action.
In Birmingham, dozens of same-sex couples married at the courthouse and an adjacent park, where they were greeted by supporters supplying cupcakes along with a handful of protesters bearing crosses and Bibles.
Wiping away tears, Eli Borges Wright, 28, said he was overjoyed to be marrying the man he has been in a relationship with for seven years. "After all of these years, I can finally say this is my husband," he said.
The scene contrasted to that in other parts of the state, from Tuscaloosa, where gay couples were refused marriage licenses, to Shelby County, where the marriage license department was shuttered.
In Mobile, attorneys for gay couples filed a federal contempt motion against Probate Judge Don Davis over the county's marriage license division being shut, which was denied on technical grounds.
Ronald Krotoszynski, a constitutional law expert at the University of Alabama School of Law, said state probate judges are obligated to follow the federal ruling but that many likely fear losing their elected judgeships by acceding too quickly.
"It makes the courage of the judges that have followed the federal order all the more remarkable," he said.
Gay rights advocates were critical of judges hindering gay marriages, and of Moore for provoking them.
"Justice Moore couched his order in a desire to create clarity, but its only effect has been to sow confusion," said Adam Talbot, a Human Rights Campaign spokesman.
Moore is no stranger to controversy. In 2003, he was removed from office after defying a federal order to take down a Ten Commandments monument he had erected in the state's judicial building. He was returned to his post by voters in 2012.
U.S. District Court Judge Callie Granade, an appointee of President George W. Bush, ruled in January that Alabama's same-sex marriage prohibition was unconstitutional, putting her decision on hold until Monday.
Two of the U.S. Supreme Court's conservative justices, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, dissented from the decision not to further delay gay marriage in Alabama.
In a dissenting opinion, Thomas wrote that the high court's actions in allowing marriages to go ahead "may well be seen as a signal of the court's intended resolution of that question."
In April, the Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments in cases concerning marriage restrictions in four states. A ruling, due by the end of June, will determine whether the remaining 13 state bans can remain intact.
Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Writing by Jonathan Kaminsky; Editing by Will Dunham, Grant McCool and Cynthia Osterman