If and when the courts rule definitively for marriage equality in South Carolina, the Rev. Lorraine Brock will stand on the marble steps in front of Charleston City Hall and offer to perform weddings for same-sex couples. She's been waiting for the day for a long time now.
Brock is head pastor at Metropolitan Community Church of Charleston, a little white chapel on Dorchester Road, where many of the approximately 100 congregants are gay, lesbian, or transgender. Founded in 1968 by a gay former Pentecostal preacher, the MCC denomination affirms same-sex relationships and actively reaches out to the gay community.
"We've always been there to comfort and to support and to be a safe haven for people who wanted to worship their God and not feel humiliated or called out or thrown out. You could come and be yourself and worship a God who loves you. That was our message: God loves you," Brock says.
When U.S. District Judge Richard M. Gergel ruled last week to overturn South Carolina's constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages, Brock started making plans. Gergel placed a one-week temporary injunction on his ruling, meaning that same-sex marriage will become legal, at the earliest, at noon on Thurs. Nov. 20. Same-sex couples would then be allowed to apply for marriage licenses statewide, and following a mandatory 24-hour waiting period, they would be allowed to marry on Fri. Nov. 21. Brock says she intends to be on the steps of City Hall at 9 a.m. Friday, ready to bless the marriages of same-sex couples who either applied for licenses on Thursday or were previously married in another state.
"I'm going to be there if they need me, and if not, then I'll be back on Monday," Brock says.
Marriage equality could come later than Thursday, though. Attorney General Alan Wilson has filed an emergency motion for a stay in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, so the current injunction could be extended to a later date or Gergel's ruling could be overturned by a higher court. Still, whenever marriage equality comes to South Carolina — and Brock is confident that it will — Brock intends to be out on the steps of City Hall performing weddings.
At her church, Brock performs ceremonies for same-sex couples that are known as holy unions, which have all the trappings of a heterosexual wedding except for state recognition. In the two years she has served at MCC of Charleston, Brock says she has performed about 10 holy unions.
"I believe that they'll be the ones that will go down and get their license and do it at the courthouse," Brock says of the same-sex couples she has married. "I think that they feel already married, except that they have not been given the benefits of marriage."
Brock says that while some of her congregants do not have a church background at all, others have come from churches where they didn't feel welcome.
"I think for the gay and lesbian community, they have this spirituality that people have always negated, and they're just as spiritual as anyone else," Brock says. "I think they've been put down for that: 'You can't love God because God doesn't love you,' 'If you'll just stop doing these horrendous acts,' and yadda yadda yadda. You know, it is wearing on people, and some of them are unforgiving. And some of them have come to MCC and been here for 30 years," she says.
As other Christian denominations have softened or changed their stances on homosexuality, Brock says some members of her church have felt comfortable returning to the churches where they grew up.
"I hope that continues," Brock says, "that people continue to try to find God wherever they're led."
Personally, Brock says she has been in a relationship with a woman for 10 years, but they are not married. She says she intends to wait and get married in New York, where they plan to retire. Even if gay marriage becomes legal in the Palmetto State, without a nationwide ruling by the Supreme Court, she says she'll wait.
"If it goes national, we'll get married tomorrow in South Carolina. But if they're going to do this state by state and it's not recognized, I just can't do that," Brock says. "I want it recognized through the whole United States. I can't worry about what state I'm in and whether it's going to be recognized or not. I can't worry about whether I'm going to be able to be in a hospital room if something happens to my partner, and certain states are still at that point."
The court case that could bring marriage equality to South Carolina began in Charleston. For a brief period on Oct. 8, Charleston County Probate Judge Irvin G. Condon began accepting marriage license applications from same-sex couples. County Councilwoman Colleen Condon and her fiancée Ann Nichols Bleckley were the first couple to apply, but Attorney General Alan Wilson intervened before the 24-hour waiting period for marriage license applications expired and successfully asked the S.C. Supreme Court to block Judge Condon from issuing any same-sex marriage licenses. (In case you were wondering, Judge Condon is Colleen Condon's third cousin.)
In response, Condon and Bleckley sued Gov. Nikki Haley, Attorney General Alan Wilson, and Judge Condon for denying their application for a marriage license. Last Wednesday morning, Judge Gergel issued a ruling in which he dismissed Gov. Haley as a defendant but prohibited Wilson and Judge Condon from enforcing South Carolina's same-sex marriage ban, a constitutional amendment that passed by a 78-percent voter referendum in 2006. However, Gergel did place a temporary injunction so that his ruling will not take effect until Nov. 20 at noon. Last Thursday, Wilson submitted an emergency motion for a stay in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which tries cases from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
Charles Joughin, a spokesperson for the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign, applauds Gergel's decision but says the legal battle isn't over yet. The Fourth Circuit previously overturned Virginia's ban on same-sex marriage in the case Bostic v. Schaefer in late July, so, Joughin says, the Fourth Circuit will likely decline to hear the case en banc (that is, with the full bench of judges present). However, if the Fourth Circuit denies a request for an en banc hearing, Wilson will be able to appeal the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking to extend the stay on the case beyond Judge Gergel's one-week injunction.
In his ruling, Judge Gergel writes that "the Court finds that Bostic provides clear and controlling legal authority in this Circuit" and orders Wilson to stop "interfering in any manner with Plaintiffs' fundamental right to marry or in the issuance of a marriage license to Plaintiffs." Gergel also offers a rebuttal to some of Wilson's arguments in defense of the marriage ban on page 16 of the ruling:
Defendant Wilson argues that the 'domestic relations exception' deprives federal courts of jurisdiction over this case, and this Court is mandated to abstain from addressing Plaintiff's federal constitutional right to marry their same-sex partner. Contrary to Defendant Wilson's contention, the Bostic Court did address the state-asserted right to control marital relations. The Fourth Circuit carefully analyzed the competing constitutional principles of state control of marital relations and the federal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment of the fundamental right of liberty, including the 'intensely personal choice' of 'whom to marry.' Citing Loving and Windsor, the Bostic Court concluded that states must exercise their authority over marital relations 'without trampling constitutional guarantees' of same-sex couples and rejected Virginia's claim that principles of federalism required a different outcome. It held that while states have the authority to regulate domestic relations and marriage, '[s]tate laws defining and regulating marriage, of course, must respect the constitutional rights of persons.'
Another case challenging South Carolina's laws on same-sex marriage, Bradacs v. Haley, is still pending before Judge Michelle Childs in the Columbia Division of the U.S. District Court for South Carolina. In that case, a state Highway Patrol trooper and her wife who were married in Washington, D.C. are seeking to have their marriage legally recognized in South Carolina. If and when Childs delivers a judgment on the case, it will have a narrower impact than the Condon v. Haley ruling because it will only grant legal recognition to marriages performed outside of the state. Judge Gergel's ruling in Condon, on the other hand, would effectively overturn both South Carolina's ban on recognizing out-of-state same-sex marriages and its ban on granting marriages to same-sex couples inside the state.
Joughin, of the Human Rights Campaign, remains convinced that the Fourth Circuit ruling in Bostic will keep the federal judge in Bradacs from overturning Gergel's ruling. "The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has already ruled that state bans on marriage for same-sex couples are unconstitutional, so regardless of how the judge rules in Bradacs, the Fourth Circuit will maintain that South Carolina's marriage ban must be struck down in its entirety," Joughin says.
Looking forward, all eyes will likely be on the U.S. Supreme Court to either make a ruling in Condon v. Haley or else decline to hear an appeal from Attorney General Wilson. Joughin adds, "Last month the [U.S. Supreme] Court allowed pro-marriage equality rulings from the Fourth, Seventh, and Tenth Circuits to stand. But we got a loss in the Sixth Circuit earlier this month, which creates a circuit court split — increasing the likelihood that the Supreme Court will take up one or more of these cases on appeal and decide the issue nationwide."