Judges and lawyers involved in the challenge to North Carolina’s gay marriage ban exchanged a flurry of documents Wednesday, igniting a rush of activity in register of deeds offices across the state.
Two federal judges – one in Asheville and another in Greensboro – have cases before them that could nullify North Carolina’s constitutional amendment that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
News of a possible ruling in either case late Wednesday afternoon sent same-sex couples across the state to county offices with hopes of getting a marriage license and being a part of North Carolina history.
In Wake County, Chad Biggs, 35, a sheriff’s deputy, was working inside the Justice Center in downtown Raleigh when he learned that marriage licenses might be available soon to same-sex couples.
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Biggs, who also is a wedding planner, rushed to the first floor of the center at the end of his shift and waited for his fiancé of two years to join him. Chris Creech, an information technology officer with the Wake County Sheriff’s department, arrived a short time later.
“I got the news, and I was the first one to rush here,” Biggs said. “This is historic, a truly memorable time for North Carolina.”
But history did not happen before the register of deeds office closed for the day.
There were no rulings on the ban from the federal courts in North Carolina before 5 p.m. Wednesday.
Biggs already had planned to take Thursday off in anticipation of a ruling, and he could be among those to seek licenses if the federal judges issue the expected rulings then.
The activity came about because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Monday not to act on lower-court rulings that struck down gay marriage bans in five states.
Though North Carolina was not one of those states, Virginia was among the five and it is in the same federal appeals court circuit as North Carolina.
Attorneys representing the parties in the North Carolina challenges agreed earlier this year that there were no legal distinctions between the Virginia same-sex union ban and the marriage definition in the North Carolina Constitution.
N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper said in the wake of the Fourth Circuit ruling that he no longer would defend North Carolina’s gay marriage ban.
But Phil Berger, the N.C. Senate president pro tem, and Thom Tillis, the speaker of the N.C. House, said they planned to hire outside counsel and try to become parties in the lawsuits.
By late Wednesday, though, the legislative leaders had not submitted court documents asking a judge to allow them to intervene.
Meanwhile, U.S. District Court Judge William Osteen lifted a stay on proceedings in two lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. Lifting the stays meant the court no longer had those cases on hold.
The judge’s order also asked attorneys to submit documents in the cases that outlined actions they wanted him to take.
That request had gay rights advocates alerting couples across the state about the possibility of getting marriage licenses before offices closed at 5 p.m.
‘A frustrating wait’
Biggs, in Wake, said he did not care so much about being the first to get a license as much as he wanted to see North Carolina join the ranks of states that offer equal marriage rights to all couples.
Biggs went to New York to get married after same-sex marriage became legal on July 24, 2011. But he left still single because of the long lines there and because of his desire to make such a significant step in his home state.
“To me, it’s a frustrating wait,” Biggs said. “In 2014, it seems to me we would be evolved enough to see that love goes past colors, past lines.”
In addition to the cases before Osteen in the Middle District of North Carolina, which stretches from Durham west to Winston-Salem, U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger in the Western District of North Carolina also has a case before him that could nullify the North Carolina ban.
Reidinger, based in Asheville, is presiding over a lawsuit filed by clergy in North Carolina who contended that their First Amendment religious freedom protections were being violated because they were not allowed to perform wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples.