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Judge strikes down NC gay marriage ban

RALEIGH (AP) — A federal judge in North Carolina struck down the state’s gay marriage ban Friday, opening the way for the first same-sex weddings in the state to begin immediately.
U.S. District Court Judge Max O. Cogburn, Jr., in Asheville issued a ruling shortly after 5 p.m. declaring the ban approved by state voters in 2012 unconstitutional.
Cogburn’s ruling follows Monday’s announcement by the U.S. Supreme Court that it would not hear any appeal of a July ruling by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond striking down Virginia’s ban. That court has jurisdiction over North Carolina.
“The court determines that North Carolina’s laws prohibiting same-sex marriage are unconstitutional as a matter of law,” wrote Cogburn, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Barack Obama. “The issue before this court is neither a political issue nor a moral issue. It is a legal issue and it is clear as a matter of what is now settled law in the Fourth Circuit that North Carolina laws prohibiting same sex marriage, refusing to recognize same sex marriages originating elsewhere, and/or threatening to penalize those who would solemnize such marriages, are unconstitutional.”
Though Cogburn’s federal judicial district only covers the western third of the state, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said through a spokeswoman that the Asheville judge’s order applies statewide.
Buncombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger kept his Asheville office open late to begin issuing marriage licenses to waiting couples the moment the ban was struck down. When the crowd gathered in the lobby heard the news, they erupted in cheers.
Within minutes, couples who brought ministers with them began exchanging their vows on the steps outside the register of deeds office.
“It’s a historical day for the state of North Carolina,” Reisinger said. “For a very long time I have been denying same-sex couples licenses, and it’s been heartbreaking because I’ve seen first-hand the harm done by discriminatory marriage laws. It’s autumn in Asheville and it’s a beautiful time to get married.”
The city is a progressive bastion nestled in the North Carolina mountains known for its vibrant downtown nightlife, art galleries and microbreweries. In anticipation of the ruling earlier this week, an enormous rainbow flag was draped across the front of Asheville’s landmark art-deco city hall to signal support for gay rights.
A Post reporter asked the Rowan County Register of Deeds if the office would be open late Friday, but it was not.
Cogburn ruled moments after a different federal judge in Greensboro delayed movement in two cases he oversees until Monday, following a last-ditch effort by Republican leaders at the state legislature to intervene in the cases. The case in which Cogburn ruled was filed by a group of clergy members seeking to marry same-sex couples, making the argument that their inability to do so under state law was an unconstitutional abridgment of their religious freedom.
“LGBT families in North Carolina will now be treated as equal under the law in North Carolina — a day that so many have fought so hard for,” said the Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality. “We celebrate knowing that this shameful chapter in North Carolina’s history has passed. At the same time we know that you can still be fired simply for being gay in North Carolina. Protection from discrimination in the workplace is the next step in our push for full equality.”
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Follow Associated Press Writer Michael Biesecker on Twitter.com/mbieseck

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