Dozens of gay couples received licences to marry in Arkansas on Monday while lawyers for the state asked its highest court to suspend a ruling that brought gay marriage to America's conservative Bible Belt.

Some of the couples waited in line overnight for their licences, three days after a judge ruled that Arkansas' voter-approved ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who recently said he supported gay marriage but believes it is his duty to defend the ban, filed paperwork Monday morning formally asking the state Supreme Court to temporarily set aside Judge Chris Piazza's ruling.

'When we heard the news in Arkansas, we had to jump in the car to get here.' - Shelly Butler, seeking a gay marriage license in Arkansas

Shelly Butler, 51, and Susan Barr, 48, of Dallas, Texas, were the first to receive a license at the courthouse in the state capital, Little Rock. The two have been together since they met at Southern Arkansas University in 1985.

"When we heard the news in Arkansas, we had to jump in the car to get here," Butler said shortly before receiving the license. "I'm just excited to marry my best friend of almost 30 years, finally."

The U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled that a law forbidding the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages was unconstitutional. That ruling stopped short of declaring same-sex marriage legal across the country, but momentum has swung toward gay marriage ever since.

Gay marriage legal in 17 states

Using language similar to that from the Supreme Court, state and federal judges nationwide have struck down some same-sex marriage bans that were enacted in many states after Massachusetts became the first state to recognize gay marriage in 2004.


Susan Barr, top, and Shelly Butler, both of Dallas, were first to line up to file paperwork for a marriage license at the Pulaski County Courthouse in Little Rock, Ark., on Monday, May 12, 2014. (Danny Johnston/Associated Press)

Gay marriage is legal in 17 states and the Washington capital district. Federal judges have ruled against marriage bans in Michigan, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Texas, though stays have been issued pending appeals. Judges have ordered Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.

Piazza issued his ruling after business hours closed Friday and did not issue a stay, so 75 county clerks in Arkansas were left to decide for themselves whether to grant marriage licences to gay couples.

On Saturday, 15 same-sex couples obtained marriage licences in the left-leaning tourist town of Eureka Springs. Other Arkansas counties have refused to issue same-sex marriage licences, saying the Arkansas Supreme Court must weigh in.

In Fayetteville, the home of the University of Arkansas, clerks issued 23 licences to same-sex couples Monday morning and one to a heterosexual couple. The women who work in the office used White-Out to correct the documents' formatting where necessary.

'Words of the almighty'

"On our licences, it automatically prints 'Mr.' and I told the girls just to change that to 'Ms.'" clerk Becky Lewallen said.

One protester stood outside the courthouse in Little Rock, dressed all in white.

"Marriage is between a male and female. … These are the words of the almighty God. Woe unto you, said the Lord," Larry O. Walker shouted outside the courthouse 75 minutes before the first license was issued.

In all, according to gay-rights groups, more than 70 lawsuits seeking marriage equality are pending in about 30 states. Democratic attorneys general in several states — including Kentucky, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Virginia — have declined to defend same-sex marriage bans.