North Carolina ruling caps landmark week for gay marriage in US

One week ago, same-sex couples could legally wed in 19 states, plus the District of Columbia. Today, that total stands at 29, with 35 states likely to be impacted as the legal implications of this week continue to ripple outward.

Lynn Hey/News & Record/AP
Michelle Giorgi and Karen Madrone share a lighter moment with the Rev. Julie Peebles as she officiates in their wedding at the Guilford County Register of Deeds office on Friday, in Greensboro, N.C.

Gay couples rushed to get marriage licenses in North Carolina Friday night, after judges North Carolina and Idaho made those states the latest this week to legalize same-sex marriage.

"North Carolina's laws prohibiting same-sex marriage are unconstitutional as a matter of law," wrote US District Court Judge Max Cogburn Jr., who was appointed to the federal bench by President Obama. "The issue before this court is neither a political issue nor a moral issue. It is a legal issue." 

The two rulings capped a landmark week for supporters of gay marriage in the US, which began on Monday, when the US Supreme Court stunned observers by declining to hear any of the seven same-sex marriage cases pending before it.

The high court’s move immediately legalized same-sex marriage in five states – Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin – and meant it would likely soon be legal in six others. 

The Supreme Court’s move, which came without comment, was both historic and surprising, the Monitor’s Warren Richey wrote. It also may indicate that the four conservative justices do not believe they have a fifth vote on the issue.

“In the past 18 years, the Supreme Court has produced three major precedents affirming and boosting civil rights for gay men and lesbians,” Richey wrote. “All three were decided by 5-to-4 or 6-to-3 margins and all three were written by Justice Anthony Kennedy.”

On Tuesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down bans in Idaho and Nevada. Nevada began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples on Thursday, while Idaho was briefly subject to a stay by the US Supreme Court, which was lifted Friday.

One week ago, same-sex couples could legally wed in 19 states, plus the District of Columbia. Today, that total stands at 29, with 35 states likely to be impacted as the legal implications of this week continue to ripple outward. 

That ripple effect already has begun, as seen by the North Carolina decision late Friday. North Carolina is bound by the rulings of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which had overturned Virginia’s ban on gay marriage. That case was one of the seven the Supreme Court declined to hear on Monday. Colorado and West Virginia also began issuing marriage licenses to same sex-couples this week.

In Kansas, South Carolina, and Wyoming – states also bound by the appeals courts whose cases the Supreme Court turned away – attorneys general and governors said this week they plan to fight for their states' same-sex marriage bans. 

Opponents of gay marriage expressed anger at the Supreme Court's decision not to take any of the cases.

"The courts have usurped the role of the people here. And we need elected officials to stand up to it," John Eastman, a law professor at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and chairman of the board of the National Organization for Marriage, told the Monitor on Tuesday. "We intend to remind the courts that the ultimate authority in this society is the people, not themselves, and I think those states ought to fight back."

Even one justice appeared to have been overtaken by the rapidity of events: Justice Kennedy initially issued an emergency stay blocking same-sex marriage in Idaho and Nevada Wednesday, after the Ninth Circuit issued a mandate that same-sex marriages begin immediately in those states, before later issuing a clarification that afternoon that the stay only should have applied to Idaho, which had applied for the emergency stay. 

On Friday, the Supreme Court then refused Idaho's request to delay implementation in a terse two-sentence order, allowing same-sex marriages to proceed in the state.

As the week progressed, there was a growing backlash to the Supreme Court’s decision not to take up the issue on both sides, as confusion over who could get married and where mounted as the week progressed and some gay-rights activists decried the “patchwork” approach.

Some court observers argued that the lack of explanation by the court was needlessly sowing confusion.

“The need for decorous silence and careful deliberation is not an excuse for what looks like indifference to the pain being inflicted on both supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage, and on local officials forced to administer justice by way of a Magic 8 Ball,” wrote Dahlia Lithwick and Sonja West in Slate on Friday.

Citing the 2011 Supreme Court decision Casey v. Planned Parenthood, they added, “Justice Kennedy was one of the justices who wrote that ‘liberty knows no refuge in the jurisprudence of doubt.’ This week’s events have afforded liberty to only some Americans, and doubt to us all.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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