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AG Cooper to counties: Get ready for gay marriage

RALEIGH (AP) — North Carolina’s top lawyer advised local officials Tuesday to prepare for an influx of same-sex couples seeking marriage certificates.
Attorney General Roy Cooper said a federal judge is expected to clear the way for same-sex marriages “relatively soon.”
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear appeals of a July ruling striking down Virginia’s gay marriage ban. Chief U.S. District Judge William L. Osteen in Greensboro then told lawyers to submit briefs within 10 days on how he should move forward in overturning North Carolina’s very similar prohibition.
Cooper, a Democrat, instructed his staff weeks ago to drop all opposition to the lawsuits challenging the state’s ban. The attorney general wasted no time in responding to Osteen’s request, filing a very short brief Tuesday reiterating the state’s view that the judge is legally obligated to follow the ruling striking down Virginia’s law by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over North Carolina. The brief said no further arguments or hearings are necessary to issue a ruling.
“It is the job of the attorney general to argue for state laws, but to also to recognize when there are no arguments left,” Cooper said.
Republican state officials, however, vowed to continue the fight — even as legal experts say they have little chance of turning the national tide of legal precedents in favor of same-sex marriage.
Gov. Pat McCrory issued a statement disagreeing with the Supreme Court’s decision. North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate Leader Phil Berger announced Monday they will seek to intervene in the federal lawsuits challenging the state ban approved by voters in 2012.
“We will vigorously defend the values of our state and the will of more than 60 percent of North Carolina voters who made it clear that marriage is between one man and one woman,” Tillis and Berger said in a joint statement.
But the Republican leaders aren’t parties in the federal lawsuits seeking to legalize same-sex marriage, recognize marriages from other states and extend full parental rights to same-sex couples. They would have to file a motion to intervene before Judge Osteen, who would then have to rule to grant them standing.
Berger spokeswoman Shelly Carver said Tuesday that the legislative leaders “are still in the process of exploring their options” and have not yet made a decision about hiring outside legal counsel.
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina represents the nine same-sex couples who are plaintiffs in the two cases where Osteen is preparing to rule. Chris Brook, the ACLU’s state legal director, said they will oppose any effort by Tillis and Berger to influence or delay the outcome.
“It the legislature thought their case was not being made, there was ample time for them to intervene before today,” Brook said. “There is no legal argument left to make here.”
But the hard-line stance taken by the GOP leaders may be more about party politics than legal realities. Tillis, who is currently in a tight race for U.S. Senate, could be seeking to shore up support among social conservatives headed into the November vote. Cooper is considered a likely Democratic candidate to challenge McCrory’s 2016 re-election bid.
Carter Wrenn, a Republican political operative best known for advising the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, said there is little political downside for GOP politicians in opposing gay marriage, even after the ban is struck down. He compared it to the courts striking down school prayer, or legalizing abortion — issues used to mobilize conservative voters to the polls decades after they were decided in the courtroom.
“I think this is essentially one of those issues that its roots go back to your religious views,” Wrenn said. “There are a lot of people in North Carolina that because of their faith believe it is just wrong.”
Meanwhile, several registers of deeds across the state said they are preparing to process marriage license applications from same sex couples. Current forms only have spaces for “Husband” and “Wife.” Software used to process vital records statewide will also need to be updated.
Buncombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger, who has been an outspoken supporter of marriage equality, said outdated forms won’t stop his office from issuing licenses to same-sex couples as soon as Osteen’s ruling is handed down. They will just cross through whatever gender-specific descriptions they need to.
“My staff and I welcome this opportunity to serve those who have waited their lifetimes for this recognition of their constitutional rights,” Reisinger said.

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