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By John Monk, The State (Columbia, S.C.) (MCT)

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Federal Judge Richard Gergel of Charleston, S.C., overturned state law and ruled today that couples of the same sex have a right under the U.S. Constitution to marry in South Carolina.

Gergel’s decision is the first ruling in a South Carolina federal court that clearly states that state government has no compelling interest — nor does it have a right — to dictate to citizens who they can and cannot marry.

In his 26-page ruling, filed at 9:29 a.m. Wednesday, Gergel quoted from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals’ Bostic decision, saying it refuted the arguments made by S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley and Attorney General Alan Wilson.

Gergel also appeared to scold Wilson and Haley, saying that the 4th Circuit ruling was the “controlling authority” and that that is a well-known legal principle.

Gergel’s decision won’t go into effect immediately.

He granted a brief stay in his decision, giving Haley and Wilson time to appeal to the 4th Circuit, should they desire. Haley and Wilson, who have filed numerous arguments in federal courts for more than a year arguing that gay people do not have the right to marry in South Carolina, are almost certain to appeal.

Still, the ruling was a historic victory for two women, Colleen Condon and Anne Bleckley, who applied for a marriage license Oct. 8 at the Charleston County probate court and paid the filing fee. On Oct. 9, when Bleckley came back to pick up the license, officials acting on the instructions of Haley and Wilson refused to issue it, the women’s lawsuit alleges.

Condon and Bleckley argued they are being harmed irreparably.

More than 40 federal court opinions in more than 25 states have decided that same-sex marriages are not barred by the U.S. Constitution.

In his decision, Gergel specifically overturned an amendment to the S.C. Constitution passed by a huge majority of South Carolinians in 2006. That amendment passed by a 78-22 percent majority in a referendum.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal of a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision allowing same-sex marriage in Virginia. The 4th Circuit is an appellate court that covers Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina. Since then, South Carolina has become the only state in the circuit whose officials will not permit gay marriages.

Haley’s and Wilson’s appeal would go to the 4th Circuit.

The two have made numerous arguments to Gergel about why federal courts should have no say in whom the South Carolina government allows to get married. Marriage is a state, not a federal matter, they argued.

Gergel’s ruling rejected those arguments.

Columbia lawyer Vickie Eslingler of Columbia, one of the winning lawyers, said Wednesday, “It’s a great day in South Carolina.

“We are thrilled South Carolina is in the forefront of applying the law as it should be applied.”

Attorneys Eslingler, Nekki Shutt and Malissa Burnette argued the case for Condon, who is an attorney and member of the Charleston County Council, and Bleckley, on behalf of the S.C. Equality Coalition. Elizabeth Littrell, of Atlanta, is also a plaintiff’s lawyer, working on behalf of the Lambda Defense Fund.

Emory Smith argued the case for the attorney general’s office in a Oct. 24 hearing before Gergel, who said he wanted to see the arguments in writing.

Briefs in the case were turned in to Gergel last week.

“The issue of same-sex marriage has proceeded through the federal courts in other states at an unprecedented pace,” Haley and Wilson argued in the state’s brief.

“Centuries of precedent have been swept away in other jurisdictions in the space of only two or three years. . . . But the legal proceedings are not over. The U.S. Supreme Court has not weighed in.”

Gergel explained in the hearing why he was moving so quickly.

“The plaintiffs in this case have asserted an irreparable injury,” he told both sides. “They assert their marriage was stopped by action of the defendants … and I believe they’re entitled to an expeditious review.”

Photo: Kevin Goebel via Flickr

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