Same-sex Marriage: What the Supreme Court Ruling Means for Families in North Carolina

Same-sex Marriage: What the Supreme Court Ruling Means for Families in North Carolina

As most of the country now knows, the Supreme Court ruled by a 5-to-4 vote in late June that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage. The decision, which comes after decades of activism and litigation, set off celebrations and tearful embraces across the country, the first same-sex marriages in several states, and resistance in many others.

Although the majority national polls indicate most Americans now approve of same-sex unions, North Carolina appears to be one of those “areas of resistance.”

History of North Carolina’s Opposition to Same-sex Marriage

Like most states in the Union, North Carolina has a long history when it comes to the issue of gay marriage. On June 18, 1996, the North Carolina State Senate passed a bill banning same-sex marriage and recognition of same-sex marriage out of state by a vote of 41-4. The same day, the North Carolina House of Representatives voted 98-10 in favor of the bill. It was ratified and went into effect June 20, 1996.

On September 12, 2011, the North Carolina House of Representatives voted 75-42 in favor of Amendment 1, which banned same-sex marriage and any domestic legal union. The next day, the State Senate voted 30-16 in favor of the bill. On May 8, 2012, North Carolina voters approved the amendment by a margin of 61.04% to 38.96%.

The amendment added to Section XVI of the North Carolina Constitution stated:

Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State. This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts.

North Carolina was the 30th state—and the last of the former Confederate states—to adopt a constitutional amendment defining marriage so as to exclude same-sex couples.

A federal judge in Western North Carolina struck down North Carolina’s ban on gay marriage on October 10, 2014. U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn issued the historic by saying the state’s denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples was unconstitutional.

Just a couple of weeks prior to the landmark Supreme Court decision this year, North Carolina lawmakers, defying the governor, enacted a law on July 11, 2015 which allows state court officials to refuse to perform a marriage if they have a “sincerely held religious objection,” a measure aimed at curtailing same-sex unions.

As reported by The New York Times, the law, which takes effect immediately, allows “magistrates, along with assistant and deputy registers of deeds, to refuse to perform a marriage without facing punishment or charges of willfully failing to discharge their duties. Court officials who disclose a religious objection must stop performing all marriages for at least six months. The measure is one of a string of bills in states like Indiana, Arkansas, and Louisiana to allow people to circumvent equal protection for same-sex couples on grounds of religious freedom.”

Changing Laws, Changing Rights

Although court officials can refuse to issue marriage licenses or to perform wedding ceremonies to same-sex couples in the state, the legalization of same-sex marriage by the Supreme Court paves the way for many other legal issues facing the gay community.

“This will have tremendous impact on family law in particular,” said Sarah Warbelow, the top lawyer for the Human Rights Campaign in Washington. “This [decision] will be a tool to help us begin to eradicate those instances of discrimination.”

Daily Report’s Alyson M. Palmer recently wrote, “Creating, building and breaking up a family will be simpler under Friday’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision giving gay couples the right to marry. But there are still unanswered questions—and work for them to do.

“[The decision] will help judges, and it will help lawyers in the putting together of families, in the taking apart of families, because we have such long-standing precedents for straight people,” said lawyer Lori Surmay, who handles adoptions and reproductive medicine issues.

“Cynthia Wright, a former Fulton County [Georgia] Superior Court chief judge and now a partner at the Atlanta family law firm Boyd Collar Nolen & Tuggle, said the decision will create more work for the state’s judges as more people find themselves in divorce court. ‘The work is going to multiply,’ she said.

“She hinted at several questions left open by the ruling, such as those related to adoptions and distribution of property in the event of a breakup. ‘I think there’s going to be a number of legal issues that only time will sort out,’ said Wright. ‘But what an exciting time it will be.’”

The Supreme Court’s ruling should bring more structure to same-sex unions, as the right to marriage brings the right to an orderly divorce—something that’s been missing for years.

Major Changes to Family Law

The Charlotte Observer’s Tim Funk recently sat down with Suzanne Reynolds of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. Reynolds is a well-known family law professor and dean of the university’s law school. The following is a transcript of their conversation:

  1. What effect, if any, will [the Supreme Court’s] ruling have on North Carolina’s new law allowing magistrates to refuse to marry same-sex couples if they have a religious objection?
  2. It doesn’t invalidate the magistrate law. It does suggest that when it is challenged (in court) it’ll be found unconstitutional on a number of grounds. One is that it burdens the exercise of a fundamental right without a rational justification. The 14th Amendment requires a rational justification. And this ruling suggests the (magistrate) law is irrational.
  3. What about the impact on proposed “Religious Liberty” laws that, for example, might say a baker doesn’t have to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple?
  4. As with the magistrate legislation, this opinion doesn’t directly address these so-called religious freedom acts. It does suggest that, likewise, they will not pass constitutional scrutiny. Because the discriminatory purpose of these religious freedom acts are all the more apparent. They are burdening a fundamental right.
  5. But will, say, Baptist and Catholic clergy whose churches define marriage as between a man and a woman, possibly be forced to marry same-sex couples in their sanctuaries?
  6. Nothing in this opinion prevents a faith tradition from continuing to teach these tenets. (Clergy) are very different from magistrates, who are civil servants and public officials.
  7. Does the ruling ensure that same-sex couples who married in North Carolina and elsewhere will have the same benefits and rights as different-sex married couples?
  8. All the benefits of marriage will flow to same-sex couples. There will be no difference between them and (different-sex married couples) when it comes to thousands of federal and state benefits, including the right to adopt as a couple.
  9. So in North Carolina, the Supreme Court’s ruling will simply continue what’s been the status quo since last October, when same-sex couples started legally marrying here?
  10. The (U.S.) Fourth Circuit (court in Richmond) had already declared that the North Carolina constitutional amendment (Amendment One) to affirm marriage as between a man and a woman was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has now said that the Fourth Circuit was right.
  11. What will happen if state judges, as happened in Alabama, tell local officials to ignore these federal rulings and not marry same-sex couples?
  12. It would be unfortunate if they do. They’re just bringing chaos to their states. Litigation will eventually settle it if they refuse to show support for the judicial process

So What’s Next?

The battle over LGBT equality is far from over, but the court’s embrace of marriage equality takes a stand for sexual-orientation equality and should mean that, ultimately, lesbian and gay families will receive equal treatment under the law.

No matter the opinion of the Supreme Court, Americans will remain divided on the issue.

“For LGBT families in North Carolina, this historic ruling means their marriages are fully secure and have been affirmed by the highest court in the land,” said the Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, told The Charlotte Observer. “Through this landmark decision, the Court has signaled that policies that treat LGBT people as second-class citizens do not fulfill the American promise of equal protection under the law and cannot stand.”

Conservatives also are looking ahead, to more litigation and court cases.

“Now the battlefield shifts to religious freedom,” says Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary. “Will the progressive, totalitarian, and intolerant left weaponize the government and attempt to force or compel people to affirm same-sex behavior and relationships? Or will they respect the freedom of conscience guaranteed by the Constitution?”

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