Charleston County Councilwoman Colleen Condon and her fiancee, Nichols Bleckley, will seek a marriage license this week from the county's Probate Court - one of at least five requests for same-sex marriage licenses expected soon across South Carolina in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision Monday.
The Supreme Court decided not to review a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal's ruling overturning Virginia's ban on same-sex marriage - and similar rulings in two other circuits. Legal experts said the court's move makes such unions legal in South Carolina and 10 other states.
S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson said he will continue to uphold the state's same-sex marriage ban that voters approved several years ago, at least until the Lexington County marriage case, Bradacs v. Wilson, is decided.
"I'm the state's attorney. The state is my client. I don't know of any client who would not want their attorney to exhaust all avenues," Wilson said. "Had the Supreme Court ruled with some degree of finality, it would have made the decision easier for all the states ... Right now, there's a little degree of grayness."
Jeff Ayers of the S.C. Equality Coalition said Condon, Bleckley and several same-sex couples will seek marriage licenses beginning Tuesday.
"We're doing this to test to see what the probate courts are going to do," he said. "If they're denied, then our lawyers will move forward with lawsuits on each of those individual cases."
Since South Carolina is in the same federal circuit as Virginia, many experts said Monday's decision ultimately paves the way for same sex marriages here.
Dr. Donald Songer, a political science professor and judicial expert at the University of South Carolina, said the Supreme Court's Monday decision expressed no judgment or opinion on whether the lower courts decided the cases correctly.
But the court's decision also means the Fourth Circuit's ruling is binding for all states that are located within it.
"State officials, down to justices of the peace in every state in the Fourth Circuit, are now also bound to accept the ruling of the Fourth Circuit that bans on gay marriage are unconstitutional," he said.
He said Wilson's pledge to continue to fight might delay the implementation of gay marriage in South Carolina "perhaps several months," but Songer noted proponents could seek a summary judgment sooner from federal court.
"There is really little point in fighting it in the sense that the issue has been decided by the Fourth Circuit. The state is going to lose," Songer said. "I see this as just political. They want to delay it as much as they can."
Carrie Warner, attorney for a South Carolina couple who is suing the state to have their marriage - which was performed legally in Washington D.C. - recognized in their home state, said she would file a motion "within a week" asking U.S. District Judge J. Michelle Childs to rule in her clients' favor.
Warner represents S.C. Highway Patrol Trooper Katherine Bradacs and Tracie Goodwin, a Lexington couple who wed in Washington D.C. and sued the state last year.
But other couples are not waiting for a ruling in that case.
Ayers said he is not sure whether a county's probate court might issue a same-sex license Tuesday. "To be honest, we've spoken to a few probate courts that are our allies," he said. "They're scratching their head. They don't know what to do."
Condon said Charleston County's Probate Judge Irv Condon is a distant cousin of hers, but she said she is unclear what he might decide.
Meanwhile, Ayers said same-sex advocates will hold a news conference in Columbia Wednesday and march to Wilson's office asking him to end the legal fight.
Victoria Middleton, executive director of the state's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said same-sex couples should be able to marry here soon.
"We hope that public officials in South Carolina will stop spending tax dollars to defend the indefensible," she said. "Delaying the inevitable will not benefit South Carolina, but it will continue to harm families that are denied the dignity of marriage."
Wilson said lawyers on his staff are working on the case and any costs of litigation would be minor.
"I'm not going to run up an astronomical legal bill on a lost cause, but I do have to balance representing my clients' interest," he said. "There are reasonable people on both sides of this issue, and I understand the criticisms on both sides with whatever action I'm going to take."
The court's decision - and Republican officials' reluctance to embrace it - could create a political issue as the state's Nov. 4 General Election approaches, said Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor.
He said Democrats might use the development to try to paint the GOP as bigots.
Wilson faces Democratic Attorney General candidate Parnell Diggs, a Murrells Inlet lawyer who has said the state should stop fighting same-sex unions. "I think it could rise as a political issue," Woodard said. "But I don't think they (Democrats) can get to 50 percent using that rhetoric."
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
What other states are doing
Eleven states were affected immediately by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision Monday. The Associated Press compiled this glance of where things stand in each:
Republican state Attorney General John Suthers said his office will file motions to expedite the lifting of federal and state court rulings that halted gay marriage and will advise county clerks when to issue licenses.
Gov. Mike Pence reaffirmed his commitment to traditional marriage on Monday but said he will follow the law regarding unions of same-sex couples. Pence said people are free to disagree over the U.S. Supreme Court's decision but are not free to disobey it. County clerks have issued a few licenses to same-sex couples.
The American Civil Liberties Union said it plans to file a lawsuit soon asking a federal judge to block the Kansas law prohibiting gay marriage.
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina says it will file a request seeking an immediate ruling from a U.S. district judge overturning the state's ban as unconstitutional. North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper has said he does not intend to file any further appeals or seek delays.
The Tulsa County Court Clerk's Office has issued a marriage license to Mary Bishop and Sharon Baldwin, the couple who successfully challenged the state's ban on gay marriage. The clerk's office issued the license Monday afternoon.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said he will continue to fight to uphold the state constitution's ban on gay marriage. A lawyer for the same-sex couple married in Washington D.C. but living in South Carolina said she will soon file paperwork asking a federal judge to immediately rule in their favor.
After the appeals order was lifted Monday, Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said the district attorney's office gave her approval to issue licenses to gay couples.
Gay couples have started marrying in Virginia.
Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a Republican, said he is still figuring out how the state's case will be affected.
The Supreme Court's surprise decision stand set off a scramble among Wisconsin county clerks to figure out how to respond. Those in Milwaukee and Madison said they would begin issuing licenses, and others were expected to follow.
A state district judge has scheduled a Dec. 15 hearing on their request by three same-sex couples and Wyoming Equality to grant the right to marry. The Wyoming case is similar but not identical to those in federal court, and those fighting for gay marriage in Wyoming were hesitant to declare unconditional victory. But same-sex marriage could be legal in Wyoming by year's end.