Judge strikes down South Carolina's same-sex marriage ban

A same-sex couple exchanges rings at a wedding.
A same-sex couple exchanges rings at a wedding.

A federal judge has struck down South Carolina's ban on same-sex marriage, positioning the deep-red state to join 32 others in allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally wed.

U.S. District Judge Richard Mark Gergel, a President Obama appointee, said that South Carolina's constitutional amendment defining marriage as an institution between one man and one woman interfered with same-sex couples' "fundamental right to marry," and offered "no meaningful distinction" from Virginia's same-sex marriage ban, which was declared unconstitutional at both the federal district and appellate levels. The August ruling in favor of marriage equality from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals -- which has jurisdiction over Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina -- essentially became law of the land throughout those states when the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal to the Virginia suit last month. The justices rejected similar cases out of the 7th and 10th Circuits, which had also found same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional, clearing the way for marriage equality's expansion to 11 more states.

South Carolina was the last state in the 4th Circuit whose officials were still blocking gay and lesbian couples from marrying.

Related: "Meet the couple challenging South Carolina’s marriage ban"

"While a party is certainly free to argue against precedent, even very recent precedent, the Fourth Circuit has exhaustively addressed the issues raised by Defendants and firmly and unambiguously recognized a fundamental right of same-sex couples to marry and the power of the federal courts to address and vindicate that right," wrote Gergel in his 26-page opinion, released Wednesday. "[T]he predictability and stability of our judicial decision-making is dependent upon lower courts respecting and enforcing the decision of higher appellate courts."

Gergel stayed his ruling until November 20 at noon, meaning gay and lesbian couples won't be able to marry until then. State officials are almost certain to appeal to the 4th Circuit, which is probably not going to rule any differently than it did in the Virginia suit. The Supreme Court will most likely have to settle the issue once and for all now that the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has broken the unanimous streak of federal appellate rulings in favor of marriage equality, creating what's known as a "circuit split." Legal experts and LGBT advocates are confident the justices will legalize marriage equality throughout the nation.

Related: "South Carolina couple optimistic after gay marriage ruling"

The South Carolina suit was filed by Lambda Legal and South Carolina Equality in October on behalf of a same-sex couple who was denied a marriage license based on the instructions of the state's Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and Attorney General Alan Wilson. According to the group Freedom to Marry, Gergel's ruling is the 52nd in favor of marriage equality since the Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) last year.

Thirty-two states plus the District of Columbia now allow gay and lesbian couples to wed. That number could go up to 33 at any time, assuming the high court lifts its temporary hold on a federal ruling that struck down Kansas' same-sex marriage ban.

South Carolina approved its constitutional amendment banning same-sex nuptials in 2006 with 78% of the vote. According to SC Equality's Facebook page, celebrations are scheduled throughout the state Wednesday.