Add North Carolina to the marriage equality column: A federal judge this afternoon struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, allowing for same-sex couples to begin marrying immediately, The News & Observer of Raleigh reports.
U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn issued the ruling about 5:30 p.m., “capping a roller-coaster day of legal activity,” the paper notes. It came less than an hour after another judge had delayed a decision in a different North Carolina marriage equality case.
Register of deeds offices, which issue marriage licenses in the state, stayed open late in some counties to accommodate demand. In Wake County, which includes the state capital city of Raleigh, same-sex marriages began taking place by 5:45 p.m., according to The News & Observer. The office is scheduled to stay open until 9 tonight.
Cogburn’s ruling came in a case that was unusual because it was brought by clergy members from pro-equality religious bodies who said the state’s ban on same-sex marriage interfered with their right to free exercise of religion. The judge agreed, finding that North Carolina’s anti-marriage equality Amendment One, added to the state constitution by voters just two years ago, violated the U.S. Constitution. The state previously banned same-sex marriage by statute.
Earlier in the day, U.S. District Judge William Osteen, considering two cases brought by same-sex couples, asked for additional briefs to be submitted, with a deadline early next week. Earlier in the week Osteen had said he intended to rule in favor of the couples, but his request for additional documents from the couples as well as state officials created a delay that disappointed couples hoping to marry.
State Senate leader Phil Berger, and Thom Tillis, speaker of the state House of Representatives, had sought to become parties to the various suits. Osteen did not rule on their request, but Cogburn denied it. Both lawmakers are Republicans and opposed to marriage equality. Tillis is also the state’s Republican candidate for U.S. senator, challenging incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan.
North Carolina is part of the Fourth Circuit of federal courts; a pro-equality ruling from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals was one that the U.S. Supreme Court let stand this week, immediately bringing marriage equality to Virginia, the state directly involved in the case. Such rulings are considered binding on the entire circuit, but Berger and Tillis had contended that Virginia officials made too many concessions leading to the nullification of that state’s marriage ban, The News & Observer reports.
After Cogburn ruled, the lawmakers issued a statement saying, “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. It is disappointing this decision was made without North Carolina’s law receiving its day in court, and we will continue to work to ensure the voice of the voters is heard.”
A representative of the American Civil Liberties Union’s North Carolina affiliate, which represented the couples challenging the ban, was jubilant. “This is a historic day for freedom and equality in North Carolina,” said executive director Jennifer Rudinger. “Thousands of North Carolinians are now able to marry the person they love and receive the dignity and legal security that comes with having that marriage recognized in their home state. For countless couples and their children, this victory is nothing short of life-changing.”
Equality North Carolina, the statewide LGBT rights group, has planned events celebrating marriage equality in Raleigh, Greensboro, Charlotte, and Wilmington. It also has set up a section on its website to guide couples planning to marry. Get more information here.
This latest ruling caps off a whirlwind week that saw the total number of U.S. states embracing marriage equality go from 19 on Monday morning to 28 (and the District of Columbia), counting North Carolina by Friday evening. Five of the new marriage equality states (Utah, Virginia, Oklahoma, Indiana, and Wisconsin) were ordered to embrace the practice by the Supreme Court's Tuesday decision, while several others, including Colorado, West Virginia, and Nevada, legalized marriage equality after state officials stopped defending bans and decided to adhere to the now-binding decisions made by federal circuit courts in their district.