The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday refused to block same-sex marriages in South Carolina.
Practically, though, marriage licenses were being awarded and couples were being wed as early as Wednesday afternoon, after the S.C. Supreme Court allowed state probate judges to issue licenses.
Gay and lesbian couples – married in-state or out-of-state – also quickly learned Thursday they could change their names on their South Carolina driver’s licenses. And state employees were told if they were married, same-sex couples could add their spouse and their children to their state health and life insurance policies.
Before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, two same-sex couples stood in line early Thursday morning to collect their licenses, ready to make history as one of the state’s first legally married same-sex couples.
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One was Ed Madden and Bert Easter, the first to apply for a license in October in Richland County, before appeals and judicial orders put the process on hold.
The other was Tom McCutchen and Ray Murray.
Both couples immediately tied the knot, with Richland Probate Judge Amy McCullough, who had issued the licenses, officiating.
McCutchen and Murray met online 14 years ago. They made their union legal Thursday, but they plan to do something special to celebrate in the spring.
McCutchen said the marriage license was a gift for his 59th birthday that he didn’t expect he would ever receive.
“We were always hopeful, but we actually did not feel like in our lifetime we would ever see this happen in South Carolina,” McCutchen said. “But we are so ecstatic. This is great.”
But S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson said the fight isn’t over.
What the U.S. Supreme Court did was decline to approve South Carolina’s request to extend a ban against same-sex marriage in the state.
That means the decision of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia, allowing gay marriage, will stand as the law until and unless U.S. Supreme Court justices rule differently. And few courtwatchers think they will.
Wilson asked the high court to extend the stay of last week’s ruling by U.S. Judge Richard Gergel of Charleston that same-sex marriage is protected by the U.S. Constitution, despite South Carolina’s laws prohibiting gay marriage. Wilson was turned down earlier this week by a 4th Circuit panel of judges and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Wilson asked for a decision by noon Thursday, when Gergel’s stay was to lift and his ruling was to take effect. Wilson got his decision, in the form of a denial, around 10 a.m.
Of the nine justices, only Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were in favor of granting Wilson a stay, according to the decision posted on the court’s website.
Wilson earlier had notified the court he might appeal on the merits of Gergel’s ruling and not just on the stay. His office said Thursday he still was reviewing whether to do that.
“Despite today’s refusal to grant our motion, the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet resolved conflicting rulings by federal appeals courts on the issue of same sex marriage,” Wilson said in a statement shortly after the decision was made public. “When the U.S. Supreme Court decides to consider the case, our office will be supporting the position of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is more consistent with South Carolina State law, which upholds the unique status of traditional marriage.”
A panel of 6th Circuit judges based in Ohio ruled 2-1 that states, not the federal government, have the right to set rules on marriage. That Nov. 6 decision has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Four other courts of appeal, including the 4th Circuit, have ruled against state bans on gay marriage.
Malissa Burnette, one of the Columbia lawyers who prevailed in Gergel’s court, said Thursday she sees little likelihood of Wilson winning in any court on the case’s merits, given that the 4th Circuit has already overturned a similar ban in a Virginia case.
“It would be just inhumane and illogical for the 4th Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court to lift the stay of Gergel’s order and let hundreds of gay couples in South Carolina start getting married and then at some later point to turn around and say, ‘Oops, we didn’t mean it,’” Burnette said.
Around the state, probate judges began accepting same-sex license applications and issuing licenses.
Probate judges in Charleston and Richland counties had begun accepting license applications on Wednesday. Both had in October for a while as well. But they issued no licenses then because a couple must wait 24 hours to pick up a license and the S.C. Supreme Court quickly had ordered judges to stop.
A Charleston couple, Kristin Anderson and her partner Kayla Bennett, were the first gay couple married in the state, tying the knot Wednesday afternoon.
In Lexington County, Probate Judge Daniel Eckstrom at first said Wednesday and again Thursday morning that he would refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, pending final litigation of the issue in the U.S. Supreme Court.
But by early afternoon Thursday, Eckstrom had reconsidered his position and was accepting applications.
In a telephone interview, Eckstrom explained that once he read the U.S. Supreme Court’s order, it became clear that the highest court in the land had upheld Judge Gergel’s order requiring a Charleston probate judge to treat same-sex couples the same as opposite-sex couples.
“That was conclusive to me – the U.S. Supreme Court wanted that order enforced,” Eckstrom said.
‘Today was for us’
In Richland County, ahead of McCutchen and Murray in line were Bert Easter and Ed Madden. The first gay couple to apply for a marriage license in Richland County last month, Easter and Madden were the first couple in line when the court opened.
They also were legally married by McCulloch.
McCulloch jokingly handed a family planning brochure to the couple along with their license.
“We’ve tried to register for years and years, but it was always in some way for someone else,” Madden said. “When we’ve registered in the past, it was really just for the purpose of making visible gay and lesbian citizens who this mattered for.
“Today was for us personally.
“Won’t it be great when this doesn't matter?” Madden continued. “When they care more about what the grooms are wearing than what’s under their clothes?”
Around 15 couples applied for licenses in Richland County, McCulloch said, and of those, about five couples were able to walk out with a license in hand because they had applied earlier.
McCulloch issued two licenses Wednesday afternoon, including one she hand-delivered to her neighbors, after the S.C. Supreme Court lifted its ban on judges around 4 p.m.
The numbers were smaller than McCulloch expected, she said, but she wasn’t sure why more couples didn’t show up. Of the couples she contacted who already had paperwork on file, about a quarter already had made arrangements to be married elsewhere, she said.
Several blocks away, Frank and Richard Kiraly were married Thursday afternoon in a ceremony performed on the stage at Trustus Theatre, amid props for the night’s show of “A Christmas Carol.”
Larry Hembree, the theater’s managing director and also a notary public, performed the short ceremony and joked that he was wasting no time delivering the signed, marriage license to the courthouse.
The couple, who work at Trustus, have tried to be married legally three other times, once in Nevada, once in South Carolina and once in 2004 in California.
The theater seats were full of friends from the theater community who blew bubbles and celebrated the occasion.
“I can’t believe that the day actually came that it could happen right here in South Carolina,” Frank Kiraly said.
“It’s been a long time coming – it’s been a roller coaster to get here. We’ve had our share of attempts to do this, we’re just glad this is finally it,” Richard Kiraly said.
“To not be told ‘No,’” Frank Kiraly added.
“Richland County’s been our home for 13 years, and we wanted them to acknowledge us,” he continued. “We didn’t want to go off to some other place” to be married.
Meanwhile, state agencies were starting to adapt to the new reality.
The state’s Public Employee Benefit Authority – saying it was abiding by recent federal court decisions – announced it would add insurance coverage for state employees’ same-sex spouses and their children.
And Beth Parks, spokeswoman for the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, said legally married same-sex couples who wish may change their names on their drivers licenses.
“We are now accepting marriage certificates from any state, including the District of Columbia,” Parks said. “We have been working with the Attorney General’s office, and we are following the law.”
Also Thursday, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, which keeps vital statistics, distributed new marriage license application forms to the state’s probate courts.
The new forms contain the option “spouse” in addition to the tradition designations of “bride” and “bridegroom.”
Tracy Glantz contributed.