Federal judge strikes down NC's same-sex marriage ban

Nearly two years after North Carolina voters approved a constitutional amendment recognizing marriage only as a union between a man and a woman, a federal court judge in Charlotte on Friday overturned the ban, allowing gay and lesbian couples across the state to marry immediately.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Nearly two years after North Carolina voters approved a constitutional amendment recognizing marriage only as a union between a man and a woman, a federal court judge in Asheville on Friday overturned the ban, allowing gay and lesbian couples across the state to marry immediately.

U.S. District Court Judge Max Cogburn's ruling came five days after the nation's top court declined to hear any appeal of a July decision by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond striking down Virginia's ban. That court has jurisdiction over North Carolina.

The Tar Heel state is now among 29 in the country, plus Washington, D.C., where same-sex marriage is legal.

In Wake County, Chad Biggs, 35, and Chris Creech, 46, together for eight years, were the first to wed – live on WRAL-TV's evening newscast.

"Even before this, I was happy, but I think now that it's on paper and it's legal — it's a commitment between two people," Biggs said afterward. "It is overwhelming, we have been struggling as a state for so long, it's a little bit surreal."

The Register of Deeds Office there stayed open until 9 p.m. to issue marriage licenses. Extra magistrates were on hand to marry, and outside, members of the clergy made themselves available as well.

"LGBT families in North Carolina will now be treated as equal under the law in North Carolina – a day that so many have fought so hard for," said Aaron Sarver, a spokesman for Campaign for Southern Equality.

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina called Friday a "historic day for freedom and equality" and Equality North Carolina called it a "historic moment."

"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," Equality N.C.'s executive director, Chris Sgro, said. "Love won, and the barriers to it are done."

Reaction wasn't all positive as supporters of the ban spoke out Friday evening.

"It's a sad day in North Carolina," the North Carolina Values Coalition posted on its Facebook page. The nonprofit family advocacy group helped to get the marriage amendment – often referred to as Amendment One – passed in 2012.

Bishop Michael Burbidge of the Diocese of Raleigh said in a statement that he, too, was saddened by the change in law and added that the Catholic Church will always teach that marriage is "the permanent and faithful union" of a man and woman.

"This is not a day for one side to claim victory," Burbidge said, echoing a statement he made in 2012 when Amendment One passed. "Instead, this is a day for all of us to renew our commitment to live in harmony as God’s family. For Catholics, while we are called to never compromise the beliefs we treasure and celebrate, we must always respect and love all people as God’s sons and daughters."

Legal fight not over

While gay and lesbian couples and their supporters awaited Friday's ruling, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, made last-minute moves to block or delay it.

Attorneys for the two filed a legal brief urging Chief U.S. District Court Judge William Osteen in Greensboro to allow them to intervene in a pair of cases he oversees.

Cogburn's order is related to a lawsuit filed in Asheville by clergy members, seeking to marry same-sex couples, who argued that their inability to do so was a violation of their religious freedom.

In a joint statement Friday evening, Berger and Tillis vowed to continue to fight for the voters who approved Amendment One.

"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," they said.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory said he planned to comply with the court's order.

"The administration is moving forward with the execution of the court's ruling and will continue to do so unless otherwise notified by the courts," he said. "Each agency will work through the implications of the court's ruling regarding its operations."

Osteen is poised to rule on the marriage amendment, likely next week.

Although he denied a motion from Tillis and Berger for a hearing, he did order all parties involved for answers to a series of questions about the two intervening, and he set a deadline of 3 p.m. Monday to receive responses.

Tillis and Berger have authority to defend the state's marriage ban because of a vote last year by state lawmakers that gave legislative leaders legal standing equal to that of the state attorney general to fight for North Carolina laws in court.

But, in denying a similar motion from the legislative leaders, Cogburn wrote that they had no legal standing to defend state law.

"North Carolina law makes it clear that it is the attorney general who is charged with 'shoulder[ing] the responsibility of defending the fruits of the democratic process,'" he wrote in his opinion.

"While the proposed interveners certainly believe the attorney general has abrogated his duty … nothing before this court supports such conclusion," he continued.

On Saturday, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest issued a statement in opposition of Friday's court decision.

"What does it say about the state of our nation when a large majority of voters can have their reasoned decision overturned by a single, unelected individual--an individual who waited until a Friday after the close of the normal court day to issue his ruling," Forest said.


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