Though the nation's highest court has yet to give the final go-ahead on marriage equality in South Carolina, a Charleston County probate judge has begun issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples -- the first to wed in the Deep South.
Kayla Bennett and Kristin Anderson said "I do" immediately after receiving their marriage license at the Charleston County Probate Court Wednesday morning. Theirs is the first legally recognized wedding ceremony between a same-sex couple in South Carolina, one of the most conservative states in the nation that still flies a Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds.
"It's the beginning of a new chapter I guess," the couple said, according to WCSC. "Everything will be the exact same, except we can get benefits, so that's awesome."
Judge Irvin Condon began issuing the licenses to same-sex couples Wednesday at 8:30 a.m., less than 24 hours after the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to stay a federal ruling that struck down the state’s same-sex marriage ban. Last week, U.S. District Judge Richard Mark Gergel, a President Obama appointee, wrote 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 earlier this year.
Gergel stayed his own ruling until Thursday at noon, meaning gay and lesbian couples weren't supposed to begin marrying until then. But on Tuesday, another federal district court also dealt a blow to South Carolina's ban, ruling that officials had to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Judge Condon likely interpreted the two rulings together as a stamp of approval to issue the licenses ahead of schedule.
"There's some uncertainty as to whether the licenses that are issued prior to [Gergel's] stay being lifted are going to be honored," Beth Littrell, an attorney at Lambda Legal, told msnbc. "But it's clear that these [marriage] laws are going to be stricken from the books, so it would not surprise me if judges across the state are recognizing the writing on the wall and moving forward now that federal judges have given them some guidance."
The 4th Circuit's decision allowing marriage equality to go forward in South Carolina came as no surprise. That appeals court had already ruled in favor of marriage equality earlier this year in a federal challenge to Virginia's ban – a decision the Supreme Court made final when it declined to hear an appeal last month.
South Carolina’s Republican Attorney General Alan Wilson has a request for a stay pending with the U.S. Supreme Court, which could conceivably block further same-sex marriages from taking place in the state. But given that the high court recently rejected a nearly-identical request from Kansas officials, clearing the way for the Sunflower State to become the 33rd in the nation to legalize marriage equality, it’s unlikely the justices would stand in the way of South Carolina’s march to No. 34 – at least not for any meaningful stretch of time.