They traveled more than 100 miles from a Tennessee jewelry store after hearing about the woman with the unique name who conducted same-sex unions at a law office in downtown Decatur.
Walking hand in hand down Second Avenue, the men, partners for 20 years, finally could make their union official, after a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage.
For many same-sex couples, the joy of acceptance by the court turned into frustration as they struggled to find an officiant to perform the ceremonies.
Probate judges in many counties, including Morgan, Limestone and Lawrence, issued the licenses, but stopped conducting marriages. And church leaders were unwilling or unable to oversee the unions because of doctrine.
Cookie Stoner closely followed the struggle from her home in Morgan County, a place labeled “not same-sex friendly” by LGBT advocates.
“In my heart, I immediately went, ‘Aww, that’s disappointing.’ Then the business side of me kicked in and said, ‘Now, there is an opportunity,’ ” said Stoner, a self-described Episcopalian Buddhist entrepreneurial humanitarian.
She researched state law, which gives the power to “solemnize” a marriage to pastors of any religious society, including officiants with the American Marriage Ministries. Since 2009, the Seattle-based nonprofit church has ordained more than 264,000 individuals in the United States. In February, days after U.S. District Court Judge Callie Granade struck down the ban on gay marriage in Alabama, Stoner became one of the American Marriage Ministries’ 2,455 pastors in Alabama.
She vowed to abide by the church’s tenets that “All people, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation, have the right to marry,” “It is the right of every couple to choose who will solemnize their marriage,” and “All people have the right to solemnize marriage.”
“My biggest concern was that I did not want anyone to question the validity of the unions. I read every statute. I talked to judges. I made sure every ‘i’ was dotted and every ‘t’ crossed so nothing could be called into question,” Stoner said.
After ensuring the legality of her ordination, Stoner added her name to the list of officiants available at the Morgan County probate judge’s office and waited for a call.
Fear weighed on Christopher White and Ryan Huchel as they approached the probate office on the second floor of the Morgan County Courthouse. They worried they would be met with contempt and scorn. They knew Granade’s ruling caused a rift in the state. While 55 percent of Americans support same-sex marriages, conservative Republicans, a political label many in the South identify with, oppose the unions by 72 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.
Yes, White and Huchel worried about people’s reactions, but what they feared more was the ruling being overturned. (That would happen March 3, when the Alabama Supreme Court ordered probate judges to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on June 26 would strike down the state order.) Scanning the list of officiants, the Decatur couple landed on Stoner.
“I was so nervous. I didn’t know Cookie or what kind of person she was. When I called, I didn’t start off by telling her it was a same-sex marriage. I needed to get a feel for her first. I was protecting myself and Ryan,” White said. “When I asked if she did same-sex marriages, she said yes and started crying. I knew then that she really cared.”
‘Spouses for life’
On Feb. 13, Stoner conducted her first same-sex union and pronounced White and Huchel “spouses for life.”
Since becoming ordained, Stoner has conducted 87 marriages, including 20 same-sex unions. Every marriage, whether between a man and a woman, a man and a man or a woman and a woman, expands how Stoner sees love. Love, she said, transcends time, age, race, religious affiliation and gender.
Stoner keeps a virtual scrapbook of the marriages on her phone and posts the photographs to social media, tagging them #CookieMarries.
Scrolling through the images, Stoner recounted the love stories. There are couples ranging in age from their late teens to their 60s. There was the couple who had been together a month — and the one who had lived together for 28 years.
“They finally decided to get married because he was in remission from cancer. They were not sure if it would come back, but they did not want to waste another moment not being married,” Stoner said.
There was the woman from north Alabama and the man from South Africa who met at a carnival in Cullman. There were the four remarriages and the three back-to-back-to-back weddings with women in late stages of pregnancy. She conducted ceremonies at her office, Rhodes Ferry Park and the Magnolia Room. Attendance ranged from three — the couple and Stoner — to hundreds. Some planned the event for weeks, such as Troy and Alex Corbin, who based their wedding on the popular TV show “Game of Thrones.” Others, such as Miguel and Mayte Rodriguez, took a more spontaneous approach.
“We have been together for almost two years. We woke up on the morning of March 21 and just knew we needed to go to the courthouse and get married. We couldn’t live another day not being married. We chose Cookie because we loved her name,” said Mayte Rodriguez, of Decatur.
“I think being married by Cookie Stoner is like being married by Elvis. People, especially the hippie crowd, love the name,” said Stoner, who also married Mayte Rodriguez’s brother.
Before each ceremony, Stoner talks with the couple and asks them the same question. “Why did you choose this date?”
“One woman told me it was because she got him out of jail the night before. Another woman said because it was Day 61. She had to wait 60 days for her divorce from her new husband’s brother to be finalized. What is interesting is that his whole family was there to support them. The former marriage had not been a healthy one,” Stoner said.
As the photographs rolled by, Stoner paused on a picture of two women exchanging a kiss. She admitted she questioned whether to post the photo, not because of her fear of what people would say about her, but out of concern for the couple.
“If this was a man and a woman, people wouldn’t care at all. I hate that it even crossed my mind of whether to put the photo online. It shouldn’t matter whether the kiss is between a man and a woman, two women or two men. Love is love,” Stoner said.
That acceptance attracted same-sex couples from Georgia, Tennessee and throughout Alabama.
“We planned on getting married in Florida when the Supreme Court ruling came down. We knew we had to get married. It was important to us so that we could have that family unit and the same rights that heterosexual couples have,” said Laurel Moore, who married her partner of five years, Renee Moore, July 3. “We were lucky to know Cookie. Everyone wants to be accepted and valued for who they truly are. That is what Cookie did.”
The Moores are in the process of moving from Hartselle to Tennessee “for a fresh start.”
Stoner staunchly defends the couples and the marriages, many who defy the traditional idea of a wedding. Instead of white dresses and tuxedos, their wardrobes range from overalls to church clothes.
“Never should a mockery be made of their weddings. Just because it does not look like the typical wedding, either because of what they are wearing or who they are marrying, does not give anyone the right to judge. When I am with them, I can feel the love. It’s like they are the only ones in the room. I don’t do this for attention. My goal is to make sure all of the focus is on the couple. I hope I fade in the background,” Stoner said.
She does not take her responsibility lightly, describing the opportunity to unite two people in marriage as humbling. She agonizes over the words and practices the special acts, such as the “Game of Thrones” hand-binding ceremony, at home with her husband.
After pronouncing each couple as married, Stoner poses with the newlyweds for a photograph.
“I stand between them on purpose so that I can tell them, ‘Let this be the last time you let anyone come between you,’ ” Stoner said.
Next year, the process of getting married could change if state Sen. Greg Albritton reintroduces a bill to the Legislature. During the 2015 legislative session and two special sessions, the Republican from Range put up for vote a bill that would eliminate the issuance of marriage licenses by probate judges.
Instead of a license, Bill 377 would label marriages as a legal contract, witnessed by a notary public, attorney or clergy member and filed with the state.
In the Legislature’s second special session held in September, the bill passed the Senate but failed to get the two-thirds approval needed in the House of Representatives.
“I will be here, whatever the state does,” Stoner said. “Every day I thank God, the universe, my higher power, for how blessed I am to be on this adventure.”
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