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Attorneys Seek Speedy Resolution Of Same-Sex Marriage Cases

Jane Blackburn and Lyn McCoy speak at an ACLU news conference.
Carol Jackson

ACLU attorneys challenging the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in North Carolina plan to ask a U.S. District Court judge in Greensboro for swift resolution of the issue. This comes after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit struck down Virginia’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage on Monday. Since that court has jurisdiction over North Carolina, supporters of same-sex marriage here say it’s only a matter of time before this state’s ban crumbles as well.

Lyn McCoy and Jane Blackburn were in their car driving Monday when they heard on the radio that the 4th circuit had struck down Virginia’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage.

"And we turned to each other very quickly because we were driving, and said does that mean what I think it means? Yes! So we were kind of overwhelmed and stunned, and very excited, very excited for the future," they said.

McCoy and Blackburn live in Greensboro and have been together for more than 20 years. They’re legally married but this state doesn’t recognize their union because of a constitutional amendment passed in 2012. They’re one of three same-sex couples who’re plaintiffs in a lawsuit the ACLU filed against the state in April that seeks to overturn North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage.

"We’ve been watching cases- the constitutional amendments fold like dominoes all over the country," says McCoy. "And for this to have happened in Virginia in our circuit court is very exciting."

Those dominoes have fallen ever since the U.S. Supreme Court decided last year, in United States vs. Windsor, that the federal government cannot discriminate against married lesbian and gay couples when determining federal benefits and protections.Since then, 14 federal district court judges have decided that marriage is a fundamental right and that state laws banning same-sex unions are unconstitutional.

The case the 4th Circuit court ruled on Monday deals specifically with Virginia’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. But Chris Brook, the legal director of the state ACLU, says the judges noted in their decision that North Carolina has a very similar marriage ban on the books:

'It is a matter ... not if Amendment One is struck down but when Amendment One is struck down and the freedom to marry is recognized here in North Carolina.' - Chris Brook

"It makes very clear that Amendment One’s days are numbered here in North Carolina and it is a matter at this point not if Amendment One is struck down but when Amendment One is struck down and the freedom to marry is recognized here in North Carolina."

Brook says the state and national ACLU plan to ask for quick legal action in North Carolina’s Middle District, where it has filed two cases against Amendment One, including the case involving Lyn McCoy and Jane Blackburn.

State attorney general Roy Cooper said in a news conference Monday that his office would no longer oppose cases seeking to overturn the state’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. But legislative leaders who helped get it passed two years ago don’t agree with that decision. Phil Berger is the President Pro Tem of the Senate.

"We have a constitution that the people of North Carolina, better than 60 percent, wanted this provision in it. The decision at this point and my position at this point is I think the attorney general ought to stand up for the people of North Carolina and ought to stand up for North Carolina’s constitution," said Berger.

Berger and Speaker of the House Thom Tillis have retained a pro bono legal counsel in the past to watch how the attorney general handled these cases. It’s not clear whether they will continue to seek legal guidance. In the news conference Monday, Attorney General Roy Cooper said they shouldn’t bother:

"I think it would be a futile gesture, because the 4th circuit ruling is in place, and North Carolina federal district court judges are bound by the 4th circuit opinion. It’s pretty clear there’s not anything left for them to argue."

In the meantime, couples like Lyn McCoy and Jane Blackburn will be waiting anxiously to see whether they can get married in North Carolina.

"We certainly hope so, it seems like the writing is on the wall, it’s just a matter of how quickly the legal wheels will grind," said McCoy. 

Blackburn said, "so it will happen and it is in our near future. It's just the question is, will it be in time for us?"

Blackburn has stage four breast cancer. It has metasticized and doctors say she may not have much time left. But Monday’s circuit court ruling has her and McCoy hopeful they will have enough time to get married in North Carolina.

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