Same-sex marriage became legal in North Carolina on Friday after a dizzying day of court filings that ended with a federal judge in the western part of the state nullifying the ban on such unions.
Scenes of jubilation, relief and an emotional sense of history erupted across the state.
U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn set off the rush to courthouses throughout the state with the stroke of his pen.
Cogburn was assigned this week to a lawsuit filed last year by clergy challenging North Carolina’s 2012 constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
At 5:32 p.m. Friday, he issued a ruling that is likely to become a part of the history books.
“The issue before this court is neither a political issue nor a moral issue,” Cogburn stated in his ruling. “It is a legal issue and it is clear as a matter of what is now settled law in the Fourth Circuit that North Carolina laws prohibiting same-sex marriage, refusing to recognize same-sex marriages originating elsewhere, and/or threatening to penalize those who would solemnize such marriages, are unconstitutional.”
All day Friday, gay couples had gathered at county register of deeds offices statewide, hoping to be among the first in North Carolina to legally wed.
“This is a historic day for freedom and equality in North Carolina,” said Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina. “Thousands of North Carolinians are now able to marry the person they love and receive the dignity and legal security that comes with having that marriage recognized in their home state. For countless couples and their children, this victory is nothing short of life-changing.”
Chad Biggs and Chris Creech, two Wake County sheriff deputies, were the first to receive a marriage license in Wake County.
The men exchanged their vows at the register of deeds office inside the Wake County Justice Center, which remained open hours past the typical closing time to accommodate couples seeking licenses.
In Durham, Orange and Johnston counties, the register of deeds offices already had closed for the day before word of Cogburn’s ruling.
The mood had been somber before the decision. An order from U.S. District Judge William Osteen had left many couples thinking that weddings would not happen Friday.
Phil Berger, leader of the state Senate, and Thom Tillis, speaker of the state House, had asked Osteen to let them enter the legal fray over North Carolina’s amendment.
Osteen asked the attorneys representing couples challenging the ban, along with North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, to respond by Monday to several questions about the nullification of Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban.
Cooper’s assistant attorneys general and other lawyers involved in the challenges of North Carolina’s ban had agreed in previous court hearings that a challenge to Virginia’s ban was legally indistinguishable from North Carolina’s ban.
With a delay until at least Monday from Osteen, couples held out hope for Cogburn’s ruling.
And Cogburn, appointed to the federal bench by President Barack Obama, delivered in short order, finding in favor of the clergy who argued that banning gay marriages in the state violated their First Amendment right to practice religion freely.
“While we recognize the tremendous passion on all sides of this issue, we promised to defend the will of North Carolina voters because they – not judges and not politicians – define marriage as between one man and one woman and placed that in our state constitution,” Berger and Tillis said in a joint statement. “It is disappointing this decision was made without North Carolina’s law receiving its day in court, and we will continue to work to ensure the voice of the voters is heard.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ignited the roller-coaster activity over the status of North Carolina’s gay-marriage ban by its inaction Monday. The justices decided not to take up appeals of lower court decisions that struck down gay marriage bans in five states.
Those decisions had a domino effect that made same-sex unions legal or soon to be legal in 30 states.
North Carolina was among those states because of the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in July that nullified Virginia’s ban on marriages between two men or two women.
Berger and Tillis argued that the Virginia attorney general who represented his state’s gay-marriage ban offered too many concessions on the legal path to its nullification.
The crowds swelled at register of deeds offices in Raleigh, Charlotte, Asheville and other cities Friday afternoon.
Vicki Britt, 53, and Trish Philbrook, 53, laughed, cried and smiled as they processed the legal wrangling.
On Friday evening, though, the newly married couple was all smiles.
“My cheeks are going to hurt,” Britt said after she and Philbrook became the first lesbian couple to legally marry in Wake County.
“It’s just a wonderful feeling to be validated as a couple,” Britt told the media crowded around them. “We’re certified. We are a done deal.”
The Rev. Nancy Petty of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church presided over their courthouse ceremony. They plan to have a celebration later that includes family and friends.
“We felt like it was important today to do this, because you never know what might happen to the laws in North Carolina,” Philbrook said.
Side dramas amid wait
The couples that married Friday laughed about some of the side dramas playing out on social media.
At midafternoon, courthouse officials in Wake asked people to line up outside the register of deeds office, and Twitter lit up with messages.
At 2 p.m. someone tweeted: “Order is coming down. Couples, friends, family, and media lined up!!!!”
Then Equality NC, a gay rights advocacy organization, tweeted: “officials are lining us outside of the #Raleigh ROD office saying an order is coming down.”
Several minutes later, Equality NC expressed the sentiment of many who kept pushing buttons on the phones and computer keyboards, thinking that refreshing the page would bring the promised news: “Refresh. Wipe Tears. Refresh. Wipe Tears ”
Then word came that Osteen had not yet signed the order. Cogburn’s court filings were being monitored more quietly.
Deputies in Wake County who had moved the crowds to the second floor of the justice center were told to usher everybody to the first floor. It was for crowd-control purposes, not because of any word from the judges.
“I promise we’re not doing this on purpose. #drama #DayOneNC,” Equality NC tweeted at about 2:15 p.m.
“If you’d told us 10 years ago we’d be tweeting over marriage equality in #NC, we’d be like: ‘what is Tweeting?’” Equality NC said in a message to its 11,400 followers.
As the curtains closed on that chaotic scene, people versed in the marriage-license process sent out checklist messages for gay and lesbian couples waiting to marry.
They informed the couples of the need for witnesses, of which there were no shortage, fees for magistrates and registers of deeds, and proof of identification.
Then the wait continued for many.
“Judge Judy would have handed down her decision within 22 minutes. 30 minutes with commercials,” someone tweeted from @3fecta.
Then came word that North Carolina same-sex marriages were legal.
There were cheers and hugs.
A flurry of statements from gay rights advocates, elected officials and others followed.
“Today’s ruling allowing loving, same-sex couples to marry across North Carolina is a historic moment for our state,” said Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality NC. “With it, we celebrate with so many North Carolinians who have worked tirelessly over decades to change hearts, minds, and unequal laws in the state we call home. Love won and the barriers to it are done.”
When Wake’s register of deeds office closed at 9 p.m., 51 couples had received marriage licenses.
Staff writer Andrew Kenney and staff photographer Chuck Liddy contributed to this report.