As the legal machinations grind on, prospective spouses, church leaders and court officials are preparing for the unprecedented change in North Carolina’s legal definition of marriage that could arrive any day.
There were no lines of hopeful couples at the Wake County Justice Center on Thursday, but court employees cased the lobby, planning for potentially large crowds and trying to keep TV camera crews out of the way.
In the office of the register of deeds, Laura Riddick, employees prepared to modify hundreds of marriage documents by hand. The state hasn’t yet given much guidance, according to Riddick.
Chad Biggs, who has been waiting to marry his partner for more than two years, was himself on duty in full uniform that morning.
Riddick has promised Biggs, a 35-year-old Wake County sheriff’s deputy, the first same-sex license in the county. She had his phone number on a sticky note attached to her identification badge, ready to call him as soon as word of a decision in the continuing court matters arrived.
Riddick acknowledged that some people might be upset by her decision to save the first license for a county employee, but she stood by her plan.
“He’s very talented – very talented – and he is so unbelievably kind,” she said of Biggs. “He takes time with everyone that enters this courthouse.”
Changing the forms
The expected change comes with logistical questions.
Because the county’s licenses are printed with codes and tracking information for automated filing, it may take days to prepare typed versions of the new application, according to Riddick.
She said she has been asking since August, to no avail, that the state Department of Health and Human Services provide advance copies of the potential new license form, or details about how it would work.
Lacking that information, first licenses likely will be modified by hand to correct their “man-and-woman” setup, Riddick said. Those licenses will be logged digitally once the county’s databases and forms are up to speed.
“This is the 21st century,” Riddick said. “Most people expect a nice, clean, automated form.”
In a written release, DHHS said it was monitoring the legal situation.
“At this time, N.C. DHHS is bound by existing state law and has no legal authority to issue a gender-neutral form in the absence of a court order or a statutory change,” read the statement attributed to spokesman Kevin Howell.
In Orange County, Register of Deeds Deborah Brooks said her office has received questions periodically from same-sex couples wanting to get a marriage license. The pending court decision won’t bring many changes in how they handle those applications, she said, but she anticipates the initial rush may slow the process.
“I think it’s just going to be an overflow the first couple of days, maybe a couple of weeks, and we just have to accommodate as many citizens as possible,” Brooks said.
She advised same-sex couples who want to get a marriage license to check the county’s website first to see what documents are required. The process usually takes 20 to 30 minutes, she said.
Some of the Triangle’s clergy also are preparing for a momentous shift.
“I know there are a number of folks from my congregation waiting to marry today,” said John Saxon, a reverend with the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh.
He showed up at the Wake justice center at about 8 a.m. Thursday in case anyone needed his services for a marriage. He hoped to find space for ceremonies at the courthouse or on the sidewalk. The fellowship will open its doors for ceremonies in the days after the final decision, he said.
The local diocese of the Catholic Church, which campaigned in favor of the 2012 constitutional ban on gay marriage, won’t be taking any further action, said spokesman Billy Atwell.
“Now what’s happening is we’re seeing legal cases, and that we can’t have any impact on,” he said. Any decision to allow same-sex ceremonies in Catholic churches would have to come from church leaders far from here, he said.
“It wouldn’t be on the parish or diocese level,” he said. “It’s rooted in the teachings of what we believe about marriage.”
Nancy Petty, pastor at Pullen Baptist Memorial Church, hasn’t signed a marriage certificate of any sort in about three years. The church voted unanimously to take that stand in response to the passage of the Amendment One constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. (The church has continued to perform marriage ceremonies.)
Now Petty has a list of couples waiting for their day. She plans to conduct a ceremony at the Wake justice center and open the church for other couples later.
“As soon as we get word, most of us are headed down to the register of deeds,” she said.