Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of gay couples were expected to apply for marriage licenses in Mecklenburg County on Monday – the first day ever they could do so – and one organization planned a mass wedding ceremony in front of the Register of Deeds office.
“There will be couples who have been waiting for years or decades who can’t afford to wait a day longer for the protections that marriage equality offers,” said Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality NC, a gay advocacy group that planned to hold a mass ceremony at 11 a.m. Monday.
U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn Jr. of Asheville legalized gay marriage in North Carolina on Friday, when he ruled on a lawsuit filed last year by clergy who challenged the state’s 2012 constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
Because his ruling came about 5:30 p.m., when the Mecklenburg Register of Deeds office was already closed, couples couldn’t apply for marriage licenses until Monday.
Register of Deeds offices in Wake, Guilford and Buncombe counties stayed open late on Friday, so some gay couples received marriage licenses then.
One couple who planned to arrive at the Mecklenburg courthouse early Monday are Joey Hewell, 34, and his partner, Scott Lindsley, 45. The couple has been together for 12 years, worn wedding bands for 10 years and called each other “husband” for years.
But all of that will take on new meaning on Monday.
“For the last couple of years, we’ve talked about what kind of wedding we want to have, but there’s never really been an end, it’s always been ‘one day,’ ” Lindsley said. “We knew that those plans would always be a dream or a wish until something happened, and last week, something happened.”
Bracing for a busy day
David Granberry, Mecklenburg County’s Register of Deeds, said his office will hold its normal business hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. He recommended anyone who wants to get a marriage license arrive by 4:30 p.m.
He noted that last month, the department had one of its busiest days, with 63 licenses issued. But Monday “could easily beat that,” Granberry said.
In anticipation of increased demand for licenses, Granberry encouraged couples to fill out the required forms online before they head for his office. He added a data entry kiosk to handle the extra demand, he said.
He’s also added an extra work station for employees and is prepared to move people from other areas to help with paperwork and processing.
“It’s going to be something we haven’t ever done before, but we’ll adjust pretty quickly,” he said.
Granberry said the department also has updated its forms, which previously referred to the “bride” and “groom.” Now they refer to “Applicant 1” and “Applicant 2,” although he noted that not all areas have been updated. He told applicants to ignore any discrepancies because the forms will ultimately print correctly as “Applicant 1” and “Applicant 2.”
While gay marriage advocates cheered Friday’s ruling, it remained unclear what would happen with two other North Carolina same-sex marriage cases in Greensboro.
Both are being heard by U.S. District Judge William Osteen, who held up a final ruling after lawyers for House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Phil Berger asked to join the cases.
Cogburn’s ruling on Friday ended 48 hours of motions and counter-motions, arguments and rebuttals. Much of it was part of a Republican effort to delay what appeared inevitable on Oct. 6, when the Supreme Court announced it would not review lower court marriage rulings in five states.
One of those decisions, which struck down a same-sex marriage ban in Virginia, came from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over the Carolinas. The Supreme Court’s decision freed up the lawsuits that had been put on hold until the high court made its thinking known.
But because of the Supreme Court’s action, Sgro said, he believes Osteen must follow the high court’s lead.
“I’m not paying attention to that (Greensboro) case anymore at this point. It’s not going to have an impact on the status of marriage equality in the state,” Sgro said. “That’s a finished conversation. Couples have already started to get married. That’s not a political position; it’s a legal reality.”
Matt Hirschy, director of business engagement and programs with Equality NC, said the vote for marriage equality in the state is just a first step. The group plans to keep fighting for equal rights for gays on other fronts, he said.
Hirschy added that protesters may demonstrate near the wedding ceremony on Monday and that organizers “welcome anyone to voice their opinion.”
“But because of the new legal landscape we have, and gay marriage is legal now, there’s not much they can do, and we certainly hope nobody would try to infringe upon that,” he said. “I just ask them how they might feel if someone tried to yell at them on their wedding day.”
A day of jubilation
Despite gay rights battles that activists still want to fight, Sgro said that Monday will be all about celebrating the marriage equality victory, something that members say has been years in the making.
Anyone who is interested can follow the Twitter hashtag #DayOneNC for tweets about the activities, Sgro said.
Brandi Morris – who married her wife, Ashley Morris, in 2010 and received a marriage license from Rockville, Md., in 2013 – said Friday’s ruling was a victory for the couple because the state has refused to recognize their marriage until now.
“Until this ruling happened, we were married in the eyes of the federal government but single in the eyes of the state government,” she said.
She recalled the “gut-wrenching feeling” in May 2012, when she watched as other people were given the opportunity to “vote on my rights” through Amendment One, which specified marriage as between a man and a woman.
“Amendment One passed, and we felt like aliens in our own state,” said Morris, 36. “With Friday’s ruling – it’s just a completely different world. Even though we witnessed marriage equality happening in other states around us, it doesn’t’ feel real until it happens right here in your own home state.”