South Carolina’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages was stuck down Wednesday in a federal court in Charleston, although the ruling does not overturn the ban just yet.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel issued a permanent injunction, prohibiting state Attorney General Alan Wilson from enforcing any state law that seeks to prohibit same sex marriage or interfere in any way with gay couples’ “fundamental right to marry.” However, a one-week stay was granted to give an opportunity for appeals to be heard by the Fourth Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court. The stay will expire at noon on November 20.
Wilson said he would appeal to the Fourth Circuit. “We believe this office has an obligation to defend state law as long as we have a viable path to do so,” he said in a statement. “Our state’s laws on marriage are not identical to those in other states. Therefore, based on the time-honored tradition of federalism, this Office believes South Carolina’s unique laws should have their day in court at the highest appropriate level.”
The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Charleston County Councilwoman Colleen Condon and her partner Nichols Bleckley, who had applied for a marriage license in October. Charleston County Probate Judge Irvin Condon (a distant cousin of the councilwoman) had accepted the license, but Attorney General Wilson asked the South Carolina Supreme Court to halt the applications until another ongoing lawsuit over the gay marriage ban could be resolved. Condon and Bleckley filed their own lawsuit after the stay was granted last month.
The other case, involving whether or not a lesbian couple married outside of South Carolina is entitled to the same rights as traditional married couples, is moving forward in a separate federal court.
But Gergel ruled the precedent to overturn South Carolina’s ban already exists. “In addressing Plaintiffs’ constitutional claim to a fundamental right to marry, this Court does not write on a blank canvas,” Gergel wrote in his order, noting that the higher Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes South Carolina, had already struck down a similar ban in Virginia.
Gergel noted there was “no meaningful distinction” between South Carolina’s and Virginia’s ban and the Fourth Circuit ruling created a clear precedent for lower courts like his own. “(Lower) federal courts are not free to disregard clear holdings of the circuit courts of appeal simply because a party believes them poorly reasoned or inappropriately inattentive to alternative legal arguments,” he wrote.
LGBT organizations had believed the ruling was inevitable after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the Virginia ban last month. “According to today’s federal court ruling… there is no justifiable reason to keep these discriminatory marriage bans on the books,” Human Rights Campaign Legal Director Sarah Warbelow said in a statement. “The truth is, laws prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying serve no purpose other than to harm Americans who simply want to protect and provide for themselves and their families. Ultimately the U.S. Constitution does not allow states to continue discriminating against committed and loving gay and lesbian couples.”