By Bob Allen
An Arkansas judge who ruled June 9 the state must recognize 500 same-sex marriages that were performed during a six-day window in May 2014 moonlights as a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship pastor and is a well-known speaker at CBF events.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen said same-sex couples who obtained marriage licenses between fellow Judge Chris Piazza’s initial ruling permitting gay marriage on May 9, 2014, and another judge’s order May 16 suspending Piazza’s ruling and halting clerks from continuing to issue licenses to gay couples are entitled to the same rights and privileges as heterosexual couples married during the same period.
Griffen also serves as pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark., a congregation that self-describes as “inclusive, progressive and welcoming” with affiliations including the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, CBF Arkansas and the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. The congregation recently celebrated its five-year anniversary.
Griffen has spoken a number of high-profile events over the years. In 2013 he was a plenary speaker at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Greensboro, N.C., and last year was among speakers at a New Baptist Covenant luncheon at the 2014 CBF meeting in Atlanta.
Griffen led a workshop on criminal justice at the first New Baptist Covenant Celebration in 2008 and was a main speaker at the New Baptist Covenant II simulcast from Atlanta in 2011. At the Baptist Conference on Sexuality and Covenant co-sponsored by CBF and Mercer University in 2012, he described a “religious phobia” he encountered when leading his church members in a study on the Bible and homosexuality.
Griffen was a member of the search committee that recommended CBF Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter for the job and in 2013 represented CBF in a press conference in Washington, D.C., advocating for immigration reform.
As a member of the Arkansas Court of Appeals appointed by Gov. Jim Guy Tucker in 1996, Griffen clashed with the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission over comments in 2002 criticizing the University of Arkansas’ racial diversity in the wake of the firing of popular basketball coach Nolan Richardson. He later criticized President Bush, the war in Iraq and the U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina.
The ethics panel eventually dropped its case against Griffen, but he was voted out of office when he sought re-election in 2008. In 2010, he was elected to Circuit Judge for the 5th Division in Arkansas, and recently announced he would seek re-election.
In a 15-page ruling, Griffen criticized the director of the state’s Department of Finance and Administration for “shameless disrespect for fundamental fairness and equality” in an effort to circumvent Judge Piazza’s “courageous and plainly stated” ruling that Arkansas’ ban on gay marriage violates the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution.
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy group, called Griffen’s decision a win for civil rights.
“Virtually every day, we continue to see tremendous signs of progress toward realizing the dream of marriage equality for gay and lesbian Arkansans,” said HRC Arkansas State Director Kendra Johnson. “While we await a final decision by the United States Supreme Court to resolve the issue of marriage equality nationwide once and for all, Judge Griffen’s ruling demonstrates yet again the unmistakable momentum of LGBT equality in the Natural State.”