July 30, 2014 at 10:00 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
4th Circuit ruling bolsters same-sex marriage efforts in South
Mississippi, Washington Blade

Jennifer and Jena Pierce of Biloxi, Miss., married last December in Connecticut. They describe themselves as an “ordinary boring couple.” (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Monday’s ruling from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that struck down Virginia’s gay nuptials ban has further bolstered efforts to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in other Southern states.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, who said last October he personally supports marriage rights for same-sex couples, announced shortly after the 4th Circuit issued its ruling that he would no longer defend his state’s same-sex marriage ban that voters approved in 2012.

North Carolina falls under the 4th Circuit’s jurisdiction along with South Carolina, West Virginia and Maryland.

Same-sex couples have been able to legally marry in Maryland since January 2013.

“Our attorneys have vigorously argued this case every step of the way,” Cooper told reporters during a Monday press conference in Raleigh as WNCN reported. “But the 4th Circuit has ruled and the 4th Circuit is clear, along with every federal court that has addressed this issue. Therefore, there are really no arguments left to be made.”

Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality North Carolina, a statewide LGBT advocacy group, acknowledged to the Washington Blade during a telephone interview on Tuesday that Cooper had previously backed marriage rights for same-sex couples.

“He felt that he needed to defend the laws of the state,” said Sgro. “Obviously given yesterday’s ruling there’s really no longer a defense. The attorney general recognizes that. We applaud him for making that same realization.”

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said on Monday his office continues to review the 4th Circuit’s ruling. He is defending his state’s same-sex marriage ban in a federal lawsuit that Lambda Legal filed against it last October on behalf of three gay couples.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office said he would continue to defend his state’s same-sex marriage ban that mirrors that which Virginia voters approved by a 57-43 percent margin in 2006.

South Carolina Equality Executive Director Ryan Wilson, who has no relation to the state’s attorney general, told the Blade on Tuesday that his organization is launching a petition drive that asks Alan Wilson to stop defending the state’s same-sex marriage ban and “stop wasting taxpayer dollars on an unconstitutional law.”

“It’s clear that denying the freedom to marry is unconstitutional and particularly the 4th Circuit kind of laid that out for us,” said Ryan Wilson. “We’re hoping that Attorney General Wilson will take the direction and follow the lead of Virginia and North Carolina and stop trying to defend a discriminatory law.”

Every ‘positive’ marriage ruling represents progress

Same-sex couples are able to legally marry in 19 states and D.C.

More than two-dozen federal and state courts have ruled in favor of marriage rights for same-sex couples since the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2013 struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act. The 4th Circuit is the second federal appeals court to rule in support of gay nuptials since the DOMA decision.

Lawsuits seeking marriage rights for same-sex couples are currently before federal judges in North Carolina, Florida and Louisiana.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati on Aug. 6 is scheduled to hear oral arguments in separate lawsuits that challenge the same-sex marriage bans of Kentucky, Tennessee and two other Midwestern states.

Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway earlier this year announced he would not defend his state’s gay nuptials ban after U.S. District Judge John Heyburn ordered the Bluegrass State to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other jurisdictions.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi in recent days appealed rulings from Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel and Monroe County Chief Circuit Judge Luis M. Garcia that struck down her state’s same-sex marriage ban.

Bondi, a twice-divorced Republican, in May argued in a motion she filed with a federal court in Tallahassee that sought the dismissal of two same-sex marriage lawsuits that the recognition of gay unions legally performed in other jurisdictions would “irreparably harm” her state.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Monday filed an appeal with the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans that seeks to overturn U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia’s ruling earlier this year that found his state’s gay nuptials ban unconstitutional.

Louisiana and Mississippi also fall under the 5th Circuit’s jurisdiction.

“Every time we get a positive court ruling, it’s progress and it ripples in various ways across (the South), especially in states where progress will be hardest to achieve,” said Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, a North Carolina-based group that advocates for marriage rights for same-sex couples and other LGBT-specific issues throughout the region. “It sends a message that one more court evaluated this and looked at this and found there is no basis for these laws.”

Beach-Ferrara and other same-sex marriage advocates in the South with whom the Blade has spoken in recent weeks indicate support for the issue continues to grow throughout the region.

Bruce Parker, coalition manager for Equality Louisiana, told the Blade on Tuesday that the majority of residents of Baton Rouge, the state capital, who took part in a poll earlier this week said they support marriage rights for same-sex couples.

“These cases and decisions are having a huge impact and movement on how people think about the issues,” he said.

A growing number of mayors in the South also support the issue.

Waveland (Miss.) Mayor David Garcia earlier this month became the first Mississippi mayor to publicly back marriage rights for same-sex couples.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, Charlotte (N.C.) Mayor Dan Clodfelter, Tuskegee (Ala.) Mayor Johnny Ford and Abbeville (S.C.) Mayor Sarah Sherwood are among the more than a dozen other Southern mayors who support gay nuptials.

But opposition to marriage rights for same-sex couples remains entrenched throughout the South as the issue continues to gain traction.

“It is outrageous that federal judges put themselves in the place of God by seeking to redefine the very institution that he created,” said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, an organization that opposes same-sex marriage, in a statement after the 4th Circuit found Virginia’s gay nuptials ban unconstitutional. “Two judges sitting in Richmond have erroneously found a ‘fundamental right’ to same-sex marriage, thus overriding the will of the people of Virginia.”

Beach-Ferrara told the Blade that 150 counter-protesters gathered outside of a courthouse in Marion, N.C., earlier this month as same-sex couples requested marriage licenses.

“We’re seeing that the opposition is, I would say, increasingly vocal and visible as we are getting closer to the day when the laws change,” she said.

‘We’re just an ordinary boring couple’

The issue remains deeply personal for same-sex couples in the South who are seeking legal recognition of their relationships.

Same-sex and transgender couples on Wednesday are scheduled to apply for marriage licenses in Greenville, S.C., as part of the Campaign for Southern Equality’s ongoing efforts to raise awareness of the issue. The group plans to stage similar actions next month in Mississippi.

Mississippi, Washington Blade

Justin McPherson Outlaw and Eddie Outlaw, owners of a hair salon and barber shop in Jackson, Miss., married in California last year. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Eddie Outlaw and Justin McPherson Outlaw, who own a hair salon and barber shop in the Fondren neighborhood of Jackson, Miss., married in California in September 2013.

They also appear in a documentary titled “A Mississippi Love Story” that chronicles their relationship over the last year. It includes their reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court striking down a portion of DOMA and other scenes that include them spending time at their home.

Eddie Outlaw told the Blade during a July 11 interview at one of his salons that he is “really encouraged” and “optimistic” about the movement in support of marriage rights for same-sex couples and other LGBT issues that continues to take place across the country.

“Millennials, even ones that identify as Republicans, they’re not so caught up in all of the social issues,” he said. “They’re moving to step away from that.”

Jena Pierce and her wife, Jennifer Pierce, of Biloxi, Miss., married in Connecticut last December.

Jena Pierce told the Blade during a July 14 interview at an oceanfront mall near their home on the Mississippi Gulf Coast that an employee at the local DMV office told her she could not change the last name on her driver’s license because the state did not recognize her marriage.

“She said really loud to get attention,” Jena Pierce told the Blade as her wife listened. “I walked out of there with my head up because I didn’t want to come off as embarrassed. I got in my car and I started sobbing.”

Jennifer Pierce said she once had issues taking sick time to take their 6-year-old daughter, Auna, to the doctor. Jena Pierce noted to the Blade in a follow-up e-mail that her wife could lose custody of their child if anything were to happen to her because the state does not legally recognize their marriage.

“We’re just an ordinary boring couple who just happen to be lesbians,” said Jena Pierce.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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