Charlotte attorney Luke Largess went with his wife to uptown’s Halcyon restaurant late Friday afternoon to mark their 22nd wedding anniversary.
But within minutes of being seated, they were celebrating something else: the overturning of North Carolina’s same-sex marriage ban.
“I think it actually was quite appropriate,” said Largess, co-lead counsel in a lawsuit filed this year on behalf of a coalition of churches, religious leaders and gay couples who opposed the ban. “It was about people having the right to have what I have.”
Largess’ and Jake Sussman’s case – the first faith-based challenge to same-sex marriage bans in the U.S. – argued that state laws prevented clergy of various faiths from exercising freedom of religion.
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As Largess and his wife, Observer reporter Elizabeth Leland, were making their way to the restaurant, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara was anxiously waiting for a ruling with couples at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds office in Asheville.
Beach-Ferrara is executive director of the Asheville-based Campaign for Southern Equality, a national LGBT advocacy group. Six years ago, she married lawyer Meghann Burke in Massachusetts. The couple moved back to Beach-Ferrara’s home state of North Carolina in 2010, although until Friday their marriage wasn’t recognized here.
Almost immediately after the news broke, Beach-Ferrara shot out an email on behalf of the Campaign for Southern Equality announcing that the ban had been overturned. At the end of her message, she wrote: “Love has won in North Carolina.”
In Halcyon’s dining room, Largess read her note on his cellphone, and wept.
“My wife was surprised because I don’t cry very often,” he said, “but I started crying in the restaurant. ... As a lawyer, it’s really nice to work on a case that has a broader impact than just you and your client. And this has an impact on thousands of people’s lives, so it was really very moving to be part of it, to have it all come together and to have the order come out while I’m sitting having my anniversary dinner with my wife.”
It was also special, Largess said, because of his personal history with Beach-Ferrara.
The two met when she was 9 and he was a law student, because they attended the same church in Chapel Hill. “He was in the band of the church, and he was active around a lot of social justice issues,” she recalled, “a pretty cool guy who I looked up to.” A few years later, they traveled together as part of church group making a service trip to Belize.
They eventually lost touch but were reunited in 2011 when Beach-Ferrara’s wife was hired – purely by coincidence – as an intern at Largess’ old law firm. (A further coincidence: Sussman was her supervisor for that internship.)
“Jasmine came in to visit her and walked through the office, and there are these pictures of all the partners on the walls, and she said, ‘Oh my God, there’s Luke!’ ” Largess said. After reconnecting, “we started having a conversation about what legal challenges we could (come up with to help) gay and lesbian folks, particularly on the marriage issue.”
Along with Sussman, they made a good team, and the hard work paid off.
Largess and Leland finished dinner on Friday night, then headed to Sussman’s house for handshakes and hugs; Beach-Ferrara celebrated Friday night by watching couples get married on the steps of the Register of Deeds office in Asheville and said on Saturday that she’s eager to see her old friend in person.
“I can’t wait to give him a huge hug,” she said. “He and Jake both have just been extraordinary, and – in a largely pro bono capacity – were willing to dive in and do this because they thought it was the right thing.”