Baldwin County Probate Judge Tim Russell, as of Thursday, has opted to no longer perform any kind of marriage at his office.
He said the decision was largely related to an increasing work load within the Probate Office, but acknowledged that he’s “morally opposed” to same-sex marriage.
Russell, who has been the county’s Probate Judge for five years, said he’s committed to conducting one more marriage—a heterosexual marriage to a former county employee—but, after that, he’s done.
When I was 17 I got my first job that didn’t involve fast food, as a technology assistant in the central office of the Baldwin County Board of Education. The job was a new one they’d created for a high school student who had shown promise in computer science. It seemed glamorous to me then, but really it was a way to find someone who was willing to string ethernet cable through schoolhouse attics in the middle of July for minimum wage. It was a legitimately great job as a kid, though, and I loved most of it. The people I worked with at the central office were pretty entertaining, like the finance director who made everyone turn off the lights one afternoon in the hopes that it would make the computers run faster.
It was eye-opening in some sad ways, though. I felt overwhelmed by what happened one day when I returned from a job in the field. The women who worked in the bookkeeping office had gathered around the upstairs window that faced Courthouse Square, Bay Minette’s main gathering spot. They were laughing and quietly whispering to each other, so I walked over to see what was going on. On the courthouse steps, across the street from our office, stood a man and woman who had just been married. They were an interracial couple, a white woman and a black man. And I felt my stomach drop when I realized that they were the source of the laughter and gossip in the office that day. I heard a woman I’d always seen as a kind, grandmotherly figure posit that “they must have had to drive over from Mississippi; they don’t allow that there.”
In hindsight, my naïveté as a teenager is startling. I knew racism was alive and well in my small town, but I’d foolishly believed the lie that it was some certain kind of behavior that was the target of scorn. I’d never seen it so openly directed toward people simply living their lives, having their pictures taken with their family on a happy, beautiful summer day, outside on the courthouse steps.
Today, same-sex couples in Alabama, some who have been in dedicated relationships for decades, can marry for the first time. I’m filled with emotion for them—it’s a day I honestly never imagined would come when I was a teenager still living in the closet. But it’s also a terribly sad day for those couples in Baldwin county, my birthplace, because their county’s probate judge has chosen his personal bias over the orders of a federal judge, common sense, and simple human decency. No one can get married on those courthouse steps ever again, according to Judge Russell.
Marriage equality will be federal law by the end of the summer, if the U.S. Supreme Court decides their pending case the way many legal experts expect them to. But thirty years after Loving v. Virginia, as a teenager in that school board office, I learned that gaining equality in the eyes of the law wasn’t the same as gaining the respect of your neighbors. Alabama, and the rest of the south, still have miles to go before we live up to the values on which our nation was founded—and many miles to go before we live up to the Christian values so many southerners claim to hold in their heart. The south may never find a place in its heart for queer people, and there will always be those who laugh at us. But they can’t deny us our rights forever. We will always be a part of the south, and this will always be our home.