The Supreme Court of Alabama ordered all the state's probate judges late Tuesday to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the latest salvo in a growing legal battle in Alabama over whether the decisions of federal justices trump those made by state judges.

The clash of federal rights versus state rights is also playing out nationwide as states opposed to same-sex marriage argue that federal courts can't throw out state gay marriage bans. The legal tempest comes months before the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on whether or not gays and lesbians can get married nationwide.

In Alabama, a series of state and federal judges have gone back and forth over the issue, with the U.S. Supreme Court recently refusing to block a U.S. District Court judge's ruling overturning the state's gay marriage ban a move that allowed gay nuptials to begin there on Feb. 9.

But the Alabama supreme court's decision threw the issue into question once more after a challenge was brought by the state and a county probate judge, among others. The court said Alabama wasn't bound by what it called the "new definition" of marriage, though gay marriage has "gained ascendancy in certain quarters of the country, even if one of those quarters is the federal judiciary."

"As it has done for approximately two centuries, Alabama law allows for 'marriage' between only one man and one woman," the court said. "Alabama probate judges have a ministerial duty not to issue any marriage license contrary to this law. Nothing in the United States Constitution alters or overrides this duty."

In its ruling, the state supreme court said all of Alabama's probate judges, including those listed as "Judge Does" in the legal filings, "are ordered to discontinue the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples." The probate judges have five days to respond to the order.

The state supreme court said the to-and-fro between the federal and state courts had meant some judges were granting same-sex marriages while others weren't. Yet others weren't performing either gay or opposite-sex marriages. "... uncertainty has become the order of the day. Confusion reigns. ... There is no order or uniformity of practice."

" ... state courts may interpret the United States Constitution independently from, and even contrary to, federal courts," the justices wrote.

Lawyers who represented same-sex couples seeking the right to marry in Alabama decried the ruling.

"It is deeply unfortunate that even as nationwide marriage equality is on the horizon, the Alabama Supreme Court is determined to be on the wrong side of history," Shannon Minter, of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said in a statement. "The Court's action displays a callous disregard for the impact of this gratuitous decision on same-sex couples and their families, but those families should take heart that this is only a stumble along the way toward equality."

At least 36 states, plus the District of Columbia, allow gay marriage.

First published March 3 2015, 5:37 PM

Miranda Leitsinger

Miranda Leitsinger is a reporter at NBC News. She started this role in February 2011. Leitsinger is responsible for long-term enterprise and breaking news coverage. Her beats include recovery from natural disasters and mass shootings, the LGBT community, income inequality, immigration and the Boy Scouts.

Leitsinger previously worked at in Hong Kong as a digital producer, where she collaborated with the network's television staff in Asia to produce enterprise stories for the website. Before that she worked as a reporter at The Associated Press for seven years in various cities, including New York, Miami, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Bangkok, Thailand, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. She covered the aftermath of 9/11 in Florida, the 2004 tsunami in Asia, the initial military tribunal at Guantanamo and Cambodia's bid to recover from genocide and the ensuing decades of civil war.

Leitsinger, a San Francisco native, lives in New York.

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