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S.C. same-sex couples a day closer to marriage

Quickly and quietly Thursday, after years of fighting and weeks of uncertainty, same-sex couples were allowed to apply for marriage licenses in South Carolina.

At the York County Probate Court in downtown York, 10 couples filed in throughout the day to fill out applications for licenses. Lancaster County Probate Court had four same-sex applicants, and Chester County Probate Court, which didn’t start taking applications until the afternoon, had one.

There were no protestors, which surprised several of the couples, given the presence of picketers in Charlotte last month when same-sex marriage was legalized in North Carolina.

Shortly after 8 a.m., as the first couples were showing up, the probate staff reported they had only been preparing since Wednesday afternoon, when the state Supreme Court ordered probate judges to issue licenses to same-sex couples.

Applications that had been filed through a software system that uses gender-specific terms were replaced Thursday in York County with paper forms that referred instead to “Applicant A” and “Applicant B.”

The first same-sex marriages in York County won’t take place until Friday morning at the earliest, because South Carolina has a 24-hour waiting period before a couple can pick up their license.

Across South Carolina, government agencies began recognizing gay marriages, giving health care coverage to the spouses and children of same-sex couples. The offer is extended to all married people in the state health plan. The 181,300 state employees receiving benefits include teachers and police officers.

Residents can now change the last name on a driver’s license to the partner’s, as long as, like any couple, they show a marriage license.

The first marriage licenses for same-sex couples actually were handed out Wednesday, and a Charleston couple exchanged vows on the courthouse steps there. On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block the marriages.

Still, Republican state Attorney General Alan Wilson vowed to fight to uphold the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex unions, saying federal appeals courts have issued conflicting rulings and the U.S. Supreme Court has not fully resolved the issue.

Gay marriage advocates disagreed.

The high court’s order “officially puts an end to the long fight for access to marriage for South Carolina’s same-sex couples and their families,” said Beth Littrell, an attorney for Lamda Legal, a national civil rights law firm that assisted plaintiffs in a Charleston lawsuit seeking to allow same-sex marriage.

While a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision cleared the way for gay marriages in South Carolina and other states in the circuit, Wilson has argued a decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding gay marriage bans in several Midwest states means the matter likely will again go to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Our office will be supporting the position of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is more consistent with South Carolina state law, which upholds the unique status of traditional marriage,” Wilson said.

Kristin Anderson and her partner, Kayla Bennett, of Charleston, were the first gay couple married in the state. Anderson said Thursday that she doesn’t expect any future court decisions to affect her marriage status.

“The way things have gone,” she said, “eventually – whether it’s sooner or later – there will be no question it will be legal.”

South Carolina is one of nearly three dozen states where gay marriages have taken place, but the situation here had been murky because of different lawsuits. With those mostly settled in favor of gay marriage, Charleston County Probate Judge Irvin Condon began issuing licenses, and the state Supreme Court soon allowed judges statewide to follow suit.

Kevin Crosby with the state’s Public Employee Benefit Authority said the agency had been preparing to extend coverage to same-sex spouses. That includes health, dental, vision and life insurance.

“We knew it wasn’t a matter of if, but when,” he said.

In all, the agency oversees benefits for nearly 460,000 public employees, retirees and their spouses and children. Participants in the state health plan include workers in state and local governments, school districts and colleges.

Staff writers Rachel Southmayd, Andrew Dys and The Associated Press contributed.