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Gay marriage debate shines spotlight on little-known SC probate courts

The hottest debate in America has landed smack in the middle of what was the ladies underwear section of the old Belk department store building in downtown York – the home of York County Probate Court.

The probate court’s offices on East Liberty Street cover the old womens wear, kids clothes and – the best name ever in department stores that doesn’t exist anymore – notions. Notions was where the thread, thimbles, shoelaces and yarn were sold.

Notions, the department, died generations ago.

Notions of love and marriage did not die.

“I have had some calls from people wondering if anything had changed this week,” said Probate Judge Carolyn Rogers. “But not many. Media, mostly.”

Since Monday – when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear appeals from states where same-sex marriage bans had been ruled unconstitutional – Rogers has told everyone the same thing.

“We will continue to do exactly what we have been doing,” she said. “As a judge, my job is to uphold the law.”

The probate court in South Carolina is the only place that issues marriage licenses. Most of the probate judges in the state are not even lawyers. Their courts are best known for marrying people.

The York County Probate Court has always been a hotbed for marriage. For almost a century, the state’s marriage laws were far more lax than other states. No waiting was the rule until recent years.

More than 350,000 couples have gotten married in York over the past 100 years. Only Dillon County – with Interstate 95, nearby military bases and millions of tourists headed to and from the beaches – has had more.

But not a single, at least not yet, same-sex marriage license.

The state Supreme Court on Thursday ordered all probate judges not to issue same-sex marriage licenses until a pending federal court cases is resolved. That ended any speculation about what was being done, should be done, or will be done – for now.

York County hadn’t issued any licenses for same-sex marriages even before Thursday’s ruling. Rogers said that in her tenure since election in 2010, her staff has not received any applications for marriage from same-sex couples.

Probate judge is not a hot job in the election cycle. Rogers, a lawyer who before running for judge practiced the probate law that is handled in probate courts, is running unopposed in her bid to be re-elected in the November election in three weeks. She was unopposed last time, too.

The judge before that was unopposed and was probate judge for 16 years. And on and on before that.

But that doesn’t mean that the Probate Court does not matter. It does. It is the only court where love is at the center of most of what happens.

The staff in the office, all women, were helpful and friendly and gracious to customers at the court offices on Thursday. The people who came in either were dealing with death – wills and estates – or that notion of life – marriage.

On Thursday, as the debate over same-sex marriage continued to enthrall and divide the country over what is supposedly right or wrong, godly or ungodly, sin or not sin, the office that legally certifies marriage was still about what marriage is about – love. There were no TV cameras, because there wasn’t any dispute.

A female soldier in uniform, on her lunch hour, walked into the Probate Court offices and asked what it took to get married. She had a tiny little boy in tow.

Another woman in uniform, a security guard, came in asking for a marriage license application. Nobody asked for a gay marriage form or a straight marriage form.

Combined, E. Gettys Nunn and Charles Nunn – father-son probate judges – were in charge of the York County Probate Court from 1930 to 1979. The “marryin’ Nunns,” as the judges were called, married so many people in the old days that they married people at their homes. Between those two Nunns, they married more than 100,000 couples.

And not a single one of those couples was same sex.

But the times, they seem to be changing.

South Carolina for decades had laws that forbade whites from marrying blacks or American Indians. Those laws died about 40 years ago, and the world did not end. In fact, the world got better.

It was clear those old laws were discriminatory and wrong.

It seems clear that, within weeks, the federal court ruling that bans on gay marriage are unconstitutional will be the law in South Carolina. Same-sex couples will be allowed to marry in South Carolina.

Some of those couples will walk into the old Belk building hand in hand and ask for an application. The helpful clerical staff who work for Judge Rogers will help them fill out the form and accept their $50 fee. The nervous couples will then get married, after a mandatory 24-hour waiting period.

Rogers does not marry people in her office, although she has the authority, but she does issue marriage licenses. She will do what the law says. If the highest courts in the nation say two men or two women can get married, Rogers will sign the form.

And the license will be issued right there in the old Belk ladies department – where the love between two people will be the only notion that matters.

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