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York, Chester, Lancaster counties wait for clear decision on same-sex marriage

UPDATE: The South Carolina Supreme Court is ordering state probate courts not to issue same-sex marriage licenses until a federal judge decides whether the state constitution's ban on the unions is legal. The justices issued a ruling late Thursday morning, a day after Probate Court Judge Irving Condon began accepting applications for the licenses. He based the move on a ruling overturning Virginia's same-sex marriage ban by a court with jurisdiction over South Carolina.

ORIGINAL STORY:

Probate judges in Richland and Charleston counties accepted marriage license applications on Wednesday from same-sex couples, but judges in York, Chester and Lancaster counties likely will not until a federal lawsuit is resolved.

Probate court officials who took the applications in Charleston and Richland counties were responding to a U.S. Supreme Court decision earlier this week. On Monday, justices refused to hear an appeal from Virginia officials attempting to retain that state’s same-sex marriage ban. The decision effectively upheld a lower federal court’s ruling that such a ban is unconstitutional.

Federal courts in South Carolina and Virginia are part of the 4th Judicial Circuit, leading some legal experts to say this week that South Carolina’s current ban on same-sex marriages will soon be invalidated.

But, local probate judges say they cannot issue same-sex couples marriage licenses until a clear decision is made on the issue for South Carolina.

Without a directive from the state’s highest court or court administration or the South Carolina attorney general, Lancaster Probate Judge Sandra Estridge says she can’t take applications for or issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple because it’s prohibited in the state constitution. York County and Chester County probate judges agreed.

As of midday Wednesday, York County Probate Judge Carolyn Rogers said her staff had not fielded any requests from same-sex couples seeking a marriage license application. Estridge's office had not received any walk-in requests from same-sex couples, but her staff did receive a phone call earlier this week from a Maryland couple who asked whether their marriage would be recognized in Lancaster County.

"We had to tell them we could not do that," Estridge said.

In South Carolina, probate judges are responsible for issuing marriage licenses.

Estridge was out of town for much of Wednesday but said she left directions with her court staff to not take applications or application fees from same-sex couples seeking a license. She said the reason is a pending federal lawsuit in South Carolina over the question.

Last year, two Lexington County women sued over South Carolina’s ban. The women had previously wed in Washington, D.C., where same-sex marriages are allowed. Same-sex marriages are now allowed in at least 26 states plus Washington, D.C., and the recent Supreme Court action could soon bump that number to 30.

Earlier this year, a federal judge in South Carolina said she would wait to decide on the Lexington County case until the Virginia lawsuit was resolved. Legal experts have said that with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Monday, U.S. District Judge Michelle Childs likely will rule South Carolina’s ban unconstitutional.

Though the Virginia case has now been settled, S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley and Attorney General Alan Wilson say the state plans to continue fighting the lawsuit. They cite the state’s constitutional amendment, which voters approved in 2006, defining marriage as being between only one man and one woman.

Continuing to fight a losing battle over same-sex marriage rights “is a tremendous waste of money” for South Carolina, said Fort Mill’s Jim Thompson, an active member of local and state Democratic parties. Thompson thinks the governor and the attorney general “are on the wrong side of history.”

Wilson’s office issued a statement on Monday saying that he sees the fight as one to “uphold our state constitution.” Haley’s office issued a statement backing Wilson’s decision and saying that South Carolina’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage should be followed until a court directly rules otherwise.

Thompson argues that Haley, Wilson and some others in South Carolina are appealing “to a shrinking base” of people who oppose marriage equality. Thompson, who is gay, said this week he hopes to soon marry in York County his partner of 33 years.

“There’s no reason in the U.S. to make anyone a second-class citizen,” he added.

Still, others argue that South Carolina and other states should have autonomy to pass and enforce their own laws about marriage. Rock Hill’s Paul Anderko, leader of a local conservative political action committee, said “going to the federal government on every whim does not help us.”

Anderko supports Haley and Wilson’s pledge to fight for keeping the same-sex marriage ban in South Carolina, he said. While they may not win, he said, it is likely to help them both at the polls Nov. 4 because he thinks the majority of voters oppose same-sex marriage.

The debate over same-sex marriage comes down to moral and religious views, Anderko said. He doesn’t take issue with civil unions for same-sex couples, he says, but believes marriage should follow Biblical terms.

Not all Christian church leaders share Anderko’s view that the Bible’s teachings condemn same-sex relationships.

At Rock Hill’s Oakland Baptist Church, Rev. Bob Shrum viewed this week’s Supreme Court action as positive. Not allowing same-sex marriage in South Carolina, he said, is “unconstitutional at best and reprehensible at worst.”

Shrum was outspoken against the marriage amendment in S.C. in 2006. Some fellow Baptist preachers took issue with his public statements and his church later withdrew from the local Baptist convention.

People in the faith community have mixed opinions about same-sex marriage and what Christians should believe about the issue, Shrum said. In his church of nearly 700 people, he knows and supports that people have the right to interpret scriptures differently, he said.

At Oakland Baptist, many gay and lesbian church members have active leadership roles, and “it’s not behind closed doors,” Shrum said. At age 69, Shrum says he’s a “product of my culture just like anyone else” and has been on “an incremental journey” in his personal beliefs on the issue.

“The more I understand about the life of Christ himself ... the more I am convinced that, if I’m going to be like him, I have to accept human beings the way they are and leave the judgment stuff up to God,” Shrum said.

Another local religious leader says God’s word on the issue is clear. Father Harold Vandeveer of Tega Cay’s Saint Barnabas Anglican Church says he has friends who are gay or lesbian and he cares about their salvation and relationship with God. But, his strong Biblical beliefs lead him to oppose same-sex marriage.

Marriage was designed for pro-creation, Vandeveer said. Scripture defines the institution as between a man and a woman and “anything other than that is abhorrent to God,” he said.

“There are people who would call me narrow-minded but they haven’t taken the time to sit down and talk with me,” he said.

Vandeveer started St. Barnabas church last year. The church has about 20 regular, committed members, he said.

Vandeveer sees his role as one of sharing the truth and word of God with people, not trying to convince them to change their lives, he said. “It’s not my job to change their hearts ... it’s the encounter with the living God that will do that.”

Shrum said if same-sex marriage becomes legal in South Carolina, his congregation may want to discuss a possible church policy concerning ceremonies. No staff member at Oakland Baptist, he said, would go against the majority decision of church members to perform or not perform same-sex marriages.

While some churches may begin to host and bless wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples in South Carolina, Vandeveer says he cannot and will not sanction it.

The Associated Press and Andrew Dys contributed.

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