05/10/2014 11:44 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

This Man Could Be The First Southern Elected Official To Allow Gay Couples To Wed


Editors Note: When this article was reported, a judge in Arkansas had not yet struck down that state's ban on same-sex marriage. On Saturday when this article was published, news that the state had issued licenses had not yet reached our editors. So while it is no longer the case that Mark Chilton could be the first Southern elected official to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple, The Huffington Post has left the article as it was originally written.

Since last June, the Campaign for Southern Equality, an LGBT advocacy group based in North Carolina, has contacted marriage license offices in more than 600 counties across the South, asking elected officials there if they would be willing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, despite their state's ban on these unions.

Less than a dozen replies came in, and they spanned the political spectrum from those who pledged their support for marriage equality and said they looked forward to issuing licenses as soon as the laws had changed, to those who said "you should go read your Bible differently," said Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, the director of the campaign.

None of the officials agreed to begin issuing licenses. But that trend is now poised to change.

This week Mark Chilton, a real estate attorney and former North Carolina mayor, won a primary election to become the next register of deeds of Orange County, North Carolina. (Chilton, a Democrat, is as of now unopposed for the Nov. 2 election.) Earlier this year, Chilton pledged that if elected, he would immediately begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. His two primary opponents, for their part, said that they would not issue licenses because the action would violate their oath of office.

Two years ago, North Carolina voters passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Even so, Chilton does not see his decision to marry same-sex couples as a violation of his oath of office.

"The North Carolina constitution spells out our oath of office as elected officials, and it says our number one responsibility -- number one -- is to uphold the U.S. Constitution, even when the U.S. Constitution contradicts the North Carolina constitution."

Since last June, when the Supreme Court struck down the section of the Defense of Marriage Act that banned the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, a string of federal court rulings from around the country have found states' same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional. Although several lawsuits challenging North Carolina's law are now winding through the courts, none have reached resolution. And Chilton is not content to sit around and wait.

"Until some court does rule on that, it's in the hands of our local county governments to make the best decision they can reasonably make and that's what I'm doing," Chilton said.

If Chilton does begin issuing licenses in January, when he is expected to take office, he will join a line of other elected officials who have taken similar stands in Pennsylvania, New Mexico and other states. In 2004, then-San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom famously ordered county clerks to issue licenses to around 4,000 same-sex couples, eventually leading to a landmark ruling from the California Supreme Court in 2008 that legalized same-sex marriage throughout the state. (Same-sex marriage in California was banned again, later that same year, by Proposition 8, a law overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court last June.)

Beach-Ferrara hopes that Chilton's position represents a turning point in the fight for marriage equality in the South. Over the last several years, she has been traveling the South with gay and lesbian couples who wish to get married, and stood witness as these couples have approached their local courthouses or register of deeds office, requested a license and been rejected.

Prior to Chilton, the most promising response came from another North Carolina register of deeds who agreed to begin accepting marriage license applications while he sought clarity from the state's attorney general on whether he might grant the licenses. However, Attorney General Roy Cooper informed the register of deeds that issuing the licenses would be in violation of the law, and the licenses were never granted.

"We've seen growing numbers of LGBT people being ready to take these actions, so seeing elected officials taking a similar stand is very powerful," Beach-Ferrara said. "We're hopeful that others will be inspired by Mr. Chilton and follow this same course of action."