(Reuters) - A U.S. judge in Alabama said on Tuesday she will hear arguments later this week on whether to force a local judge to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, a day after officials in most of the state refused to do so in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lawyers for same-sex couples unable to obtain marriage licenses in Mobile County filed separate legal challenges against the county's probate court judge, Don Davis, late on Monday.
Mobile County, home to Mobile, the state's third-largest city, was the most populous of the 42 of Alabama's 67 counties that continued to refuse to provide marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples on Tuesday, gay rights advocates said, down from 52 counties a day earlier.
U.S. District Court Judge Callie Granade, a President George W. Bush appointee who struck down the state's ban on gay marriage as unconstitutional in a ruling that took effect on Monday, scheduled a hearing for Thursday.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in a strong signal in favor of gay marriage, refused on Monday to grant a request by Alabama's Republican attorney general to keep the weddings on hold until the high court decides later this year whether laws banning gay matrimony violate the U.S. Constitution.
But Roy Moore, the conservative chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, ordered state judges to defy Granade's ruling and uphold the state's gay marriage ban.
Gay rights advocates said any order Granade issues arising from the hearing will apply specifically to Mobile but it could compel other judges to begin issuing licenses.
"We don't think it will be necessary to sue each of them, but we can if need arises," Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said in an email. The center is representing some of the plaintiffs.
Most legal experts say the state judges will ultimately have little choice but to follow the federal court's ruling.
Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in New Orleans; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Sandra Maler and Eric Beech