November 21, 2014. Charleston. Post & Courier. By Jennifer Hawes. Same-sex marriage cascaded across South Carolina on Thursday, from Charleston out into the most conservative rural swaths of the state, after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to halt it.
The justices denied S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson's request for a stay in a federal lawsuit that found the state's gay marriage ban unconstitutional. That delivered a major blow to Wilson's efforts to defend the voter-approved prohibition.
Chief Justice John Roberts issued the denial Thursday with Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting.
It effectively ended six weeks of intense legal wrangling that spanned multiple South Carolina court cases, two federal judges, a federal appellate court, the S.C. Supreme Court and, finally, the nation's highest court.
As Thursday wore on, same-sex couples across the state headed to their local courthouses to make history.
Wilson, however, said he isn't giving up.
"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.
He hopes the high court will consider a case out of the Ohio-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that could establish a national rule for all states to follow. Appellate justices in that circuit upheld a state's gay marriage ban last week, becoming the first to do so.
Other circuits have struck down the bans as unconstitutional, including the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over South Carolina.
Fourth Circuit justices on Tuesday denied Wilson's request for a stay. He then sought one from the U.S. Supreme Court.
"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," Wilson added.
However, for same-sex couples and their supporters, the high court's denial topped off a wave of supportive rulings over the past week.
"We are thrilled that the full U.S. Supreme Court considered and soundly rejected the state's motion for a stay - and we sincerely hope the attorney general will now reconsider his intention to continue fighting this losing battle," said Malissa Burnette, a lead attorney in a lawsuit filed by Charleston County Councilwoman Colleen Condon and her then-fiancee, Nichols Bleckley, seeking to marry.
Rolling across the state
The state's first same-sex marriage license bore Condon and Bleckley's names on it Wednesday morning after a Charleston judge was first to issue the documents.
Charleston County Probate Judge Irvin Condon, a distant cousin to Colleen Condon, issued the license, along with others.
But across South Carolina on Thursday, the ability for same-sex couples to apply for marriage licenses hinged largely on where they lived, at least until about noon. Probate judges across South Carolina took different actions based on their readings of the complex, rapid-fire legal rulings over the past few days.
"Everybody seems to be doing something a little different," said Orangeburg County Probate Judge Pandora Jones-Glover.
South Carolina's 46 probate judges are elected to their posts and must face voters with their legal decisions.
"They're facing the heat of this tough decision," said Columbia attorney John Nichols who represents Judge Condon and a lesbian couple who sued Wilson to force the state to recognize their marriage from Washington, D.C. A federal judge ruled Tuesday in the couple's favor.
However, as the hours passed Thursday, probate judges statewide began issuing same-sex marriage licenses, and same-sex couples hit their local courthouses.
Lowcountry judges in Berkeley, Dorchester, Orangeburg, Georgetown, Beaufort, Jasper and Colleton counties told The Post and Courier they were accepting applications. They reported few, if any, applications from gay couples.
"We welcome them down here in Jasper County," Probate Judge Albert Kleckley Jr. said, adding his office had received many phone calls from interested people but no applications so far.
In Richland County, Probate Judge Amy McCullough was second in South Carolina to issue the licenses.
She began doing so briefly Wednesday afternoon after the S.C. Supreme Court lifted a stay. She continued to do so Thursday morning and officiated several weddings.
Most counties waited until noon on Thursday, the deadline U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel set when he ruled last week that South Carolina's same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional. He allowed the extra time to give Wilson a chance to ask the 4th Circuit for an emergency stay. The justices denied the stay on Tuesday.
Driving for rights
Also Thursday, the state Department of Motor Vehicles began accepting marriage licenses from same-sex couples, spokeswoman Beth Parks said.
That means gay couples can change their driver's licenses to reflect married names.
"We are working with the Attorney General's Office to be sure we are following the letter of the law," Parks said.
Given the week's judicial rulings, "any delay making this institutional change would have been indefensible," said Susan Dunn, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina.
"All married persons should have the same right to choose to take a new name after marriage. That choice should be honored without regard to the sex of your marriage partner," Dunn said.
The ACLU and South Carolina Equity sued the department on behalf of gay couples who had married in other states and changed their surnames. DMV workers then refused to issue driver's licenses with the couple's new married names.
U.S. District Judge Michelle Childs ruled Tuesday that the state must recognize same-sex marriages from other states where it is legal.
So far, Wilson has not decided whether to appeal the decision. "Our office is reviewing that ruling," spokesman Mark Powell said.
As of midday Thursday, gay marriage was legal in 35 states.