Politics & Government

Federal court ruling could open door to same-sex marriage in the Carolinas

The state of North Carolina will stop defending its same-sex marriage ban after a federal court ruled Virginia’s ban unconstitutional and cracked the door to gay marriage in the Carolinas.

In a ruling that could extend to the Carolinas, a panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond voted 2-1 to strike down Virginia’s ban. The court called it “precisely the type of segregation that the Fourteenth Amendment cannot countenance.”

Lawyers said that, barring a stay, the ruling could lead county clerks in Virginia to issue licenses to same-sex couples on Aug. 18.

The decision was hailed by gay rights advocates across the country. An attorney for a group challenging North Carolina’s ban called it “a matter of time” before same-sex marriage is legal.

“Absent a Supreme Court decision against (the 4th Circuit decision), it makes it all but certain,” said Charlotte attorney Luke Largess.

Monday’s ruling in Bostic v. Schaefer could extend to other states in the 4th Circuit, including the Carolinas.

But Attorney General Roy Cooper said same-sex marriages are unlikely in North Carolina until the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear – or not hear – an appeal in the Virginia case. Cooper said his office will stop defending the state’s 2012 gay marriage ban, known as Amendment One.

No longer defending ban

Monday was the latest in a string of court victories for supporters of same-sex marriage. It’s now legal in 19 states. Federal cases are pending in 31 others, including North Carolina.

North Carolina’s Justice Department has been defending the ban in four N.C. cases. It no longer will.

“Today, we know our law almost surely will be overturned as well,” Cooper, a Democrat, told reporters. “Simply put, it is time to stop making arguments we will lose and instead move forward, knowing that the ultimate resolution will likely come from the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The state of North Carolina will acknowledge the 4th Circuit opinion that marriage is a fundamental right and that our office believes that the judges are bound by this 4th Circuit decision.”

Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis, who’s running for the U.S. Senate, criticized Cooper.

“The attorney general’s job is to defend the laws passed by our state’s citizens, and the people spoke clearly on this issue. Too many politicians ignore the will of the people, and it is clear that the attorney general did just that today,” Tillis said.

His opponent, Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, said she opposed Amendment One “because, ultimately, I personally don’t believe we should tell people who they can love or who they can marry.”

Reactions mixed

Others assailed the ruling.

“It is outrageous that federal judges put themselves in the place of God by seeking to redefine the very institution that He created,” Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, said in a statement. “North Carolina’s Marriage Amendment still stands, and no judge has found it unconstitutional.”

The Rev. Mark Harris, pastor of Charlotte’s First Baptist Church and a leader of the successful 2012 amendment effort, said the ruling shows “a judiciary that is out of control.”

“We are seeing many judges choosing to make law from the bench and ignoring the will of the people,” he said.

Of the two appeals court judges who issued the ruling, Henry Floyd was appointed by President Barack Obama. Roger Gregory was appointed first by Democrat Bill Clinton and then by Republican George W. Bush.

The lone dissenter, Paul Niemeyer, was named by Republican George H.W. Bush.

Gay rights supporters applauded the decision.

“With today’s ruling, we are closer than ever before (to same-sex marriage), with support for marriage equality at an all-time high right here in North Carolina, across the South and across the country,” said Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality NC.

Chris Brook, legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation, said the ruling “is the most significant step to date toward securing the freedom to marry for all loving and committed couples in our state.”

‘Mountaintop moment”

The Rev. Robin Tanner, a minister at Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church and a lesbian, called it “a mountaintop moment.”

“This is a moment to celebrate and realize that marriage equality is sweeping across our country,” said Tanner, who just gave birth to twins. “I long for the day when my family is ensured its full safety and sanctity, and this feels to be an important day closer to that promise.”

Charlotte resident Myra Diuguid, who married her longtime partner in Washington, D.C., in 2012, said she was pleased with the ruling.

“It needs to be constitutional for same-sex couples to marry,” she said. “This isn’t fair. It would be great if it were legalized in this state. We live in 2014. They need to get off their high horses.”

Chad Severance and his partner, Nate Turner, have been together for three years. They were sitting in their Charlotte living room when they got word of the ruling.

“All of a sudden text and Facebook messages came pouring in with our friends asking us when our wedding date is,” Severance said. “It’s probably one of the most exciting moments that we’ve had as a couple. We were hoping this would happen sooner rather than later.”

Staff writers Emma Baccellieri and Claire Williams, and Andrew Kenney of The (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.