GREENSBORO — U.S. District Court Judge William Osteen lifted the stay on the American Civil Liberty Union’s two challenges to North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriages late Wednesday, legally clearing the path for a ruling that would legalize gay unions.

Legal observers say the ruling could come as early as this morning.

Anticipation kicked into a frenzy at Guilford County’s register of deeds office and others across the state after the ACLU tweeted at 3:58 p.m. Wednesday that Osteen’s ruling could come at any time.

“A friend of ours posted on Facebook, ‘It’s happening now,’ ” said real estate agent Frank Brooks, who was first in line at the register of deeds office, which issues marriage licenses.

The action follows the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal on Monday to hear appeals from five states looking to keep their bans on same-sex marriages.

If Osteen rules in favor of same-sex marriages in North Carolina, as expected, registers of deeds across the state say they will begin issuing marriage licenses immediately.

The ruling from the court, which is based in Greensboro, would negate what is known as Amendment One, the voter-approved state constitutional amendment declaring marriage as between a man and a woman.

“It’s like anticipating the birth of a new era,” said Guilford County Registrar Jeff Thigpen as he walked around his office shortly before closing with the telephone to his ear and a barrage of same-sex callers wanting to know if they could get married. He took down their names, telling them he would call as soon as he got the news.

“These aren’t people who have been dating a month,” Thigpen said of those who shared their stories with him. “These are people who have been together for 10 to 20 years.”

Brooks, 48, and his partner, Brad Newton, 46, met at a party 18 years ago. The two had just begun planning a wedding in New York, where same-sex marriages are legal, when the Supreme Court’s ruling Monday made them change their plans.

“We said, ‘No, let’s wait and get married in our backyard with our family,’ ” Brooks said.

While Thigpen awaited word, the two used a computer in the clerk’s office to begin typing in their personal information. The couple plans to come back today.

“I don’t have to worry (that the space) says bride?” Newton asked Elaine Inman, an assistant register of deeds.

“No, we’re going to switch it” to the right paperwork, Inman told him.

Thigpen said his office has yet to receive updated paperwork from state Department of Health and Human Services officials that includes same-sex couples.

Thigpen said his office will process the applications anyway, updating the forms by hand if necessary.

“They said they weren’t going to release the paperwork until it becomes the law,” Thigpen said. “Between now and in the morning, that should be done so we’ll be prepared.

“These couples deserve the dignity and respect.”

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