Supreme Court inaction leaving many gay couples in limbo

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GREENVILLE, S.C. — Brianna Watts and Rachel Duncan hoped that this time it would be different — this time the clerk behind the counter wouldn’t say no.

Three months ago, the Greenville, South Carolina, couple had gone to the probate judge’s office with paperwork in hand, knowing there was no way the clerk would accept their application for a marriage license because of the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. But Wednesday was different.

The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday not to hear any appeals from states seeking to keep their gay marriage bans had given hope to Watts and Duncan — and thousands of couples across the country — that they would soon be able to marry.

But the courts inaction also triggered confusion in many states. Take some of those covered by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In Virginia, where the circuit court had previously overturned the ban, marriages have already started. In North Carolina, where the ban had been overturned by a lower court judge and the attorney general had promised not to defend it anymore, couples were expecting an imminent court decision to let them marry. In South Carolina, which had not yet had its law overturned and where the attorney general vowed to keep fighting for it, couples weren’t quite sure what would happen.

Despite the uncertainty, Duncan and Watts remained hopeful. Watts put on a turquoise dress with a white sweater. Duncan’s blue sweater covered her gray and white button down shirt. They wanted to look good for their “wedding day,” Duncan said.

“I think they’re going to say yes today,” she said. “I really do.”

As they waited for the court to open, Duncan, 31, and Watts, 26, reminisced. They met five years ago at a party in Charlotte and immediately hit it off. Watts was strong, determined with a smile that could light up a room; Duncan was outgoing and funny.

They’ve wanted to get married for years and start a family. But like so many same-sex couples across the country, they’ve had to wait.

“There are a lot of legal issues. If you’re not recognized by the state, it’s a struggle,” Duncan said.

The couple moved to Greenville a few years ago. Watts works for a document company that offers benefits to gay couples. Duncan is an artist.

With all the recent court cases overturning gay marriage bans, the couple has started making wedding plans. They set a date for next October.

But in a city that’s home to Bob Jones University, one of the most conservative Christian schools in the nation, they had problems finding a venue for their reception. “They said, ‘We’re not going to do a gay marriage. We can’t be part of that,'” Watts said.

Duncan and Watts walked to probate court with a group of about 20 supporters and two others gay couples planning to marry.

The other couples went inside first. When each emerged, they told the crowd, the court had refused to accept their application.

Duncan and Watts took a deep breath and opened the door.

The couple told clerk Elizabeth Robinson they wanted to get a marriage license and handed her their application. She told them she couldn’t accept it because of the state law.

Watts was polite, thanking Robinson for her “kindness” and told her they’d return in a few days.

As they left, Robinson began crying.

As Duncan, Watts and their supporters were ready to disperse, they heard the news: a probate judge in Charleston had accepted a same-sex couple’s application for a marriage license.

South Carolina has a 24-hour waiting period for marriage licenses. But if things went right, a gay couple in South Carolina could be married by Thursday.

Watts and Duncan wondered if Greenville Probate Court Judge Debora Faulkner would change her mind. They didn’t want to get their hopes up, but it was an encouraging sign. No one was going to leave — not yet.

But inside her office, Faulkner said no licenses would be issued there because pending court cases could have different results, forcing her to void a license.

“No one wants to think they’re married when they’re not,” she said.

Faulkner blamed the U.S. Supreme Court for the mess.

“If they had issued a written decision categorically finding that all state statutes that banned same sex marriage are unconstitutional, then we would immediately start issuing licenses,” she said.

Watts, Duncan and others would have to wait for the legal issues to play out in the courts.

While Watts and Duncan were disappointed, this rejection felt like the last one they would have to suffer.

“It’s only a matter of time at this point. Whether it’s today, or whether it’s in a couple of weeks, couple of months, it’s changing,” Watts said.

MITCH WEISS, Associated Press

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