Though many gay couples in North Carolina have long dreamed of the day they can legally marry, a U.S. Supreme Court decision Monday brought a mix of relief and heightened sense of the chaos of wedding planning.
Hours after the U.S. high court decided not to take up appeals striking down same-sex marriage bans in five states, with Virginia among them, civil rights lawyers in North Carolina began preparing paperwork to overturn the state’s Amendment One.
Amendment One, approved in a 2012 referendum defines marriage in the state constitution as a union between a man and a woman.
But in July, the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriages. Since North Carolina is part of the same circuit, the Virginia ruling has sweeping implications in this state.
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Critics of same-sex unions appealed the Fourth Circuit ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Chief Justice John Roberts issued a stay that kept the Virginia ban in place until the high court’s decision on Monday.
U.S. District Judge William Osteen, who is presiding over two cases brought by the ACLU challenging the North Carolina ban, halted all legal proceedings while the U.S. Supreme Court weighed how it would proceed on the appeal of the Virginia ruling.
Though the high court’s decision Monday opened the immediate possibility for same-sex marriages in Virginia and other states, it could be a more than a week before North Carolinians know how the issue will play out here.
Osteen issued an order late Monday giving both sides in the North Carolina lawsuits 10 days to tell him how they want him to proceed.
The ACLU of North Carolina not only wants the judge to strike down the 2-year-old ban, but critics of the restriction also plan to ask Osteen to rule in fewer than 10 days.
But N.C. General Assembly leaders added yet another legal twist late Monday.
Phil Berger, president pro tem of the N.C. Senate, and Thom Tillis, speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives, two of the Republican leaders who helped shepherd Amendment One to a statewide referendum, said late Monday they planned to take on the legal battle to defend the ban that North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper has said he no longer would fight to keep.
“The people of North Carolina have spoken, and while the Supreme Court has not issued a definitive ruling on the issue of traditional marriage, we are hopeful they will soon,” Tillis and Berger said in a joint statement. “Until then, we will vigorously defend the values of our state and the will of more than 60 percent of North Carolina voters who made it clear that marriage is between one man and one woman.”
Amendment One was approved 61-39 percent, yet only 21 percent of North Carolina’s registered voters cast ballots in favor of the change.
Critics of the ban say advocates overstate the support by omitting turnout figures. They also question why and through what legal arguments Berger and Tillis plan to intervene.
“Any action by Berger and Tillis at this late date would surely be a waste of taxpayer money,” said Chris Brook, legal director of the ACLUof North Carolina.
“The Supreme Court’s decision means that the freedom to marry for same-sex couples must be recognized here in North Carolina without delay,” Brook said. “Every day that gay and lesbian couples in North Carolina are denied the ability to marry the person they love places their families and children in legal and financial jeopardy. The time has come to end this unfair treatment once and for all and to let our American values of freedom and equality apply to all couples.”
‘An interesting time’
Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality NC, a gay rights advocacy group, is one of the North Carolinians experiencing euphoria over the Supreme Court decision while feeling somewhat overwhelmed by a possible wedding in the next week or two.
“This is an interesting time for all of us,” Sgro said Monday afternoon.
Couples who have advocated for years for marriage equality say that though they are waiting for Osteen’s next step they hear more than a faint tingle of wedding bells.
Now they are having discussions about a possible Osteen ruling that would strike down North Carolina’s definition of marriage and the schedule they want to pursue if that happens.
Some are contemplating a swift marriage, while others are considering waiting for a time when they can have a large number of family and friends around them.
They’ve talked about organizing mass weddings or low-key events.
“It will be emotional,” Srgo said.
In register of deeds offices across the state, officials are getting ready for the possibility of same-sex unions.
Drew Reisinger, the first register of deeds in North Carolina to accept a same-sex marriage license – he did so in October 2013 – said Monday he planned to wait for the federal district court in North Carolina to rule before taking that step again.
“My staff and I welcome this opportunity to serve those who have waited their lifetimes for this recognition of their constitutional rights,” Reisinger said in a statement. “It is the role of elected officials to follow the law. My office will honor our commitment to the laws of North Carolina. As soon as the laws formally change to allow same-sex marriage in North Carolina, like they have today in Virginia, we will adapt our practices accordingly.”
Laura Riddick, the Wake County register of deeds, said her office would honor any changes to North Carolina’s marriage laws if and when they happen.
“For now, North Carolina’s county Registers of Deeds urgently need the state Department of Health and Human Services to give us the gender-neutral marriage form they’ve created in anticipation of such a ruling,” Riddick said in a statement. “We must have that form now so our software vendors can update our computerized marriage license systems so we’ll be ready to go when we get a court order to issue same-sex marriage licenses.”
Alexandra Lefebvre, a press assistant with the state DHHS, issued a statement for the department, saying the state registrar was monitoring several of the pending cases challenging North Carolina’s definition of marriage.
Neil S. Siegel, a professor of law and political science at Duke University, said Monday that he saw little room for a federal judge in North Carolina to uphold a ban on gay marriage.
“I think federal judges in North Carolina are now legally obliged to declare Amendment One unconstitutional,” Siegel said.