Marriage equality came to North Carolina Friday, and now a second federal judge has issued a pro-equality ruling -- but he's allowing Republican legislative leaders in the state to intervene and potentially appeal it, although they're unlikely to succeed in revoking equal marriage rights.
U.S. District Judge William Osteen, hearing two cases brought by same-sex couples, ruled that the state's ban on same-sex marriage violates the U.S. Constitution, reports The Charlotte Observer. Another district judge, Max Cogburn, reached the same conclusion Friday in a case brought by religious leaders, and same-sex marriages began Friday evening.
Cogburn turned down a request by Phil Berger, leader of the State Senate, and Thom Tillis, speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, to intervene in the case he heard, but Osteen granted the request by the politicians, both Republicans. This means they can appeal the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and on to the U.S. Supreme Court if they wish. The state attorney general had ceased defending the ban.
The Fourth Circuit has already found a similar ban, in Virginia, to be unconstitutional, and both Osteen and Cogburn cited this decision in their rulings. And the Supreme Court last week declined to hear an appeal of the Fourth Circuit ruling. So that does not bode well for further appeals.
Still, John Eastman, a law professor and attorney who represents Berger and Tillis, asserted that the Supreme Court's decision doesn't mean it agrees with the Fourth Circuit ruling. "I think it's still an open judgment before the Supreme Court," he told the Observer.
Berger issued a statement saying, "Today's ruling recognizes that the more than 60 percent of North Carolina voters who define marriage as between one man and one woman deserve their day in court, and this decision is an important step to ensure their voice is heard," but stopping short of saying he and Tillis would appeal, which they have 30 days to do.
Marriage equality supporters assured North Carolinians the marriage ban, Amendment One, is dead. "The legislature can attempt to pursue an appeal if they so choose; however, that would only unnecessarily expend taxpayer resources. North Carolinians can rest assured: the freedom to marry is here to stay," Chris Brook, the American Civil Liberties Union's North Carolina legal director, said in a statement to the Observer.
Chris Sgro, executive director of statewide LGBT rights group Equality NC, posted this statement on the group's website: "We want to make it perfectly clear to tens of thousands of loving, same-gender families as well as supporters of equality statewide, that today's decision by U.S. District Court Judge William Osteen is in direct accord with Friday's ruling that found Amendment One unconstitutional, and reaffirms that the freedom to marry is the law of the land in North Carolina. Osteen's decision to allow the state's Republican leaders Thom Tillis and Phil Berger to appeal the ruling sheds harsh light on Tillis and Berger's willingness to waste precious taxpayer dollars in a futile effort to defend an unconstitutional law. Make no mistake, Amendment One is dead. We know it. Our courts know it. Our Attorney General knows it. And our Governor knows it. And no amount of spending our money to play politics with North Carolina families will resurrect it."
There are a few other objectors to marriage equality among North Carolina public officials. Monday in Elizabeth City, in the northeastern corner of the state, a magistrate at the Pasquotank County courthouse refused to perform a wedding ceremony for longtime couple William Locklear and Randy Jackson, saying he could not do so because of his religious beliefs, reports The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk, Va. The magistrate, one of four in the county, was not identified by the paper. A different magistrate, Lee Custis, performed their wedding today.
"It's been a long time coming," Jackson told the paper. "It's hard to put it in words. I didn't think I'd live to see this."
Pasquotank County Clerk of Superior Court Connie Thornley told The Virginian-Pilot that magistrates who refuse to perform weddings as required by law risk termination. Some magistrates may resign rather than comply, she said.