Meet three South Carolina couples who tried to apply for marriage licenses last week.
Colleen Condon & Nichols Bleckley, Charleston County
When Colleen Condon and Nichols Bleckley requested a marriage license application in the Charleston County Probate Court last Wednesday morning, they didn’t know what to expect. Other same-sex couples had tried to apply in years past, if only to make a statement, and they had been turned away every time. This time, for the first time, the court accepted their application.
“We were hopeful,” Condon says. “Did we think there was a likelihood that somebody was going to try to stop it? Yes. But we were hoping that everyone would be guided by their better angels and say, ‘OK, wait, this is over. Give up the fight.'”
But Attorney General Alan Wilson did not give up the fight. Wednesday afternoon, Wilson submitted a petition to the state Supreme Court to place an injunction on the issuing of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Condon says she spent Wednesday night talking to lawyers and preparing to testify against the petition in Supreme Court. Thursday morning, Bleckley waited at the Charleston courthouse to see if their license would be issued while Condon drove to Columbia so she could speak in Supreme Court if Wilson’s request made it on the docket.
“We were sitting in separate courthouses two hours away from each other, not knowing what was going to happen,” Condon says. “Is [Judge] Condon going to say something? Is the state Supreme Court going to say something? It was an exhausting day.”
Wilson’s request did not make it on the morning docket, and after the scheduled hearings were finished, Condon says a clerk told her the justices were no longer there and no more cases would be heard for the day. Condon left the courtroom for lunch, and while she was gone, she heard that the Supreme Court had ruled in Wilson’s favor.
Condon says she watched on Thursday as West Virginia began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and she wished things would have gone as smoothly in South Carolina. “It could’ve been that simple this week,” Condon says. “It should’ve been that simple this week.”
As an attorney and an outspoken member of Charleston County Council, Condon is no stranger to public attention and scrutiny. She says she received death threats and rape threats for her opposition to the extension of I-526 back in 2012, and in 2013 the political gossip blog FITSNews tried to make a scandal out of her sexual orientation. But during her current round in the spotlight, she says she and her fiancée have received some encouragement. Neighbors brought them flowers, and contractors who were working on Condon’s house brought her a bottle of champagne to celebrate the acceptance of the marriage license application.
Ultimately, she says she does not regret taking the chance in probate court last Wednesday morning.
“We could have just sat back to see what happened,” Condon says, “but things don’t get changed if everybody sits back and waits.”
Ed Madden & Bert Easter, Richland County
Last week was the second time that Ed Madden and Bert Easter nearly got legally married. Madden, director of the Women’s & Gender Studies program at the University of South Carolina, originally hails from Arkansas, a state that briefly legalized same-sex marriages in several counties in mid-May this year. In the wake of a ruling from a circuit judge that declared that state’s same-sex marriage ban illegal, several county clerks began issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. As in South Carolina, courts’ decisions varied from county to county, and the window was quickly closed following a suspension of the circuit ruling by the Arkansas Supreme Court.
“We almost drove to Arkansas,” Madden says. “We were watching to see, and my county in Arkansas never did it.”
Last week, Madden and Easter showed up first in line at the Richland County Probate Court and were pleasantly surprised to see that the labels on the marriage license had already been changed from “Bride” and “Groom” to “Applicant 1” and “Applicant 2.” They submitted their application, and now they must wait until a federal judge rules on the constitutionality of South Carolina’s gay marriage ban.
“I think the attorney general’s fighting a lost cause, don’t you?” Madden says. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”
Madden and Easter have been married in the eyes of their faith since 2005, when they traveled to the Unitarian Church in Charleston to be, as Madden puts it, “unlawfully wedded.” Last week, they were almost lawfully wedded. Almost.
“We had a busy schedule this week in the Women’s & Gender Studies program,” Madden says, “so to have the social and the political overlaid on what was already a stressful week was kind of crazy — surreal.”
Annette & Christina Clark, Dorchester County
If and when the state decides to recognize their marriage, Annette and Christina Clark will keep their old anniversary. Fifteen years ago next month, the couple held a commitment ceremony, and they have built a life together ever since. They have three children together (two from previous marriages, one via artificial insemination), they run a business together in Summerville, and they even share the same last name since Christina had hers legally changed.
Still, they want to celebrate their legal marriage when it happens.
“We’re just going to do a small ceremony,” Annette says. “We just want to make the government recognize our relationship.”
Last Wednesday morning, Annette says she called the Dorchester County Probate Court and was told that the court was waiting on an updated application form from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. When she pressed the court employee on the matter, she was told that the court would not be accepting applications.
“They told us it was their constitutional right not to give us a marriage license,” Annette says. (Reached by phone Wednesday and asked about the court’s policy, a court employee said, “Right now, we don’t have any information at this moment.”)
Annette says she looks forward to the comfort of legal rights that come from a state-recognized marriage, including Social Security benefits in the event of death and power of attorney in the event of a medical emergency. In the meantime, she says that couples like her and Christina who have been applying for marriage licenses around the state are pushing the issue and encouraging the courts to make a ruling sooner rather than later.
“I think that since it went to the point that it did, they’re going to have to do something,” Annette says.