GREENSBORO — The Rev. Jac Grimes stood outside the Guilford County Register of Deeds office, which is in the shadow of the courthouse where a federal judge could rule on North Carolina’s ban against same-sex marriage at any time.
“I’ve got to think he knows everybody’s holding their breath,” Grimes said about 7:45 a.m. Thursday as he stood across Market Street from where U.S. District Judge William Osteen is considering the legality of the voter-approved Amendment One, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
But it would become another day where history was put on hold. A ruling didn’t come Thursday from the judge, who signaled he might strike down the two-year-old law.
As Registrar Jeff Thigpen locked the doors of his office at the end of the day, a same-sex couple together for 18 years, who had spent hours waiting for a ruling, walked away empty-handed.
On Thursday, they and other same-sex couples could only watch as heterosexual couples got the licenses they crave — followed up with “Congratulations” sometimes echoing across the room from strangers.
“I had hoped to be done and back home with a bottle of champagne,” said Brad Newton, 46, whose peach corsage matched that of his partner, Frank Brooks, 48.
The speculation on a ruling follows the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal Monday to hear appeals from five states that want to keep their bans on same-sex marriages.
Osteen lifted the stay on challenges to gay nuptials in the state on Wednesday, which cleared the way for a ruling, according to legal observers.
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.
Before the end of the day, N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger asked for a one-week delay to prepare arguments supporting their motion to intervene in the lawsuits. The Republican legislators have hired California lawyer John C. Eastman, chairman of the conservative National Organization for Marriage.
But late Thursday, Osteen denied the request. He gave the legislators until noon today to file those arguments.
“In light of the stage of this litigation, and the arguments and positions previously asserted by both parties to this case, this court does not find good cause to extend the time for filing a proposed answer,” the judge ruled.
Earlier in the day, Osteen requested additional paperwork from the plaintiffs, who are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Although the additional paperwork is a side issue involving “injunctive relief” — or the right of the plaintiffs to sue should they win — Osteen gave them until 5 p.m. to get it to him.
That issue — that the plaintiffs could not sue for monetary damages — was decided earlier in the case, but the paperwork submitted by the civil rights group did not reflect that.
Still, it would be one more issue, not even directly tied to whether the ban is constitutional, added to a day full of emotion.
“We’ve got a lot of movable parts,” Thigpen said.
Thigpen said he thought Thursday could be the day that North Carolina made history by issuing the first marriage license to a same-sex couple — and he wasn’t alone.
Newton, Brooks and another same-sex couple were in the door shortly after the office opened at 8 a.m.
The first couple that entered shied away from the throng of cameras.
“I haven’t told my parents,” one of the women said.
Newton and Brooks walked in after them. They had rushed to the register of deeds office minutes before closing Wednesday when word spread that the judge might rule before the end of the day. The judge didn’t rule, but the two would-be grooms had time to complete an application.
So, they came back Thursday with hope in their hearts.
“This is going to be a historic day — I hope,” said Newton, who brought along witnesses and a minister in a white clerical collar to marry them.
One of the witnesses, Ashly Morrison, had tears running down her face as the men, surrounded by reporters, spoke of meeting at a mutual friend’s birthday party 18 years ago.
“My husband and I have been married almost 20 years, and they love each other as much as we do,” Morrison said. “To be able to see this happen for them, for us, for society is a wonderful thing.”
By 9:30 a.m., Thigpen was on a flurry of calls with the state’s other registers of deeds concerning the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ lack of a response to their pleas to release revised paperwork that replaces “Bride” and “Groom” with “Applicant One” and “Applicant Two.”
“They feel they don’t have the tools they need, and it’s going to create chaos,” Thigpen said.
The registers of deeds were told at an association meeting earlier this year that the state has the actual updated paperwork, he said.
“They are sitting on it,” Thigpen said.
About 10 a.m., at least three clergy were waiting alongside Grimes and his wife, Liz, to perform free weddings.
Most had left for other appointments by about 1 p.m., when word began to spread that the state would file paperwork to intervene in the case to defend Amendment One.
Several couples decided to go ahead and fill out forms, which would be processed if the judge overturned the ban.
Ashley Benton, 40, and her partner, Latoya Anderson, 29, showed up to support same-sex couples but then decided to fill out the marriage paperwork themselves. They took pictures of their completed application and then shared a kiss.
“We’re getting ready to post this on Facebook, Twitter and to call our family,” a gushing Benton said.
As it neared 5 p.m., Brooks and Newton showed frustration. Osteen had yet to issue a ruling.
“I can’t stop staring at my phone,” said Newton, who had been checking tweets and texts all day. “I just want it to be over with.”
Listening nearby was Chris Sgro, the executive director of Equality North Carolina, which partners with the ACLU.
Sgro said it wasn’t a wasted day for the couples who showed up to fill out paperwork.
“This will be one of the biggest judicial victories for civil rights of a generation, and people want to be a part of that regardless,” Sgro said.
Same-sex couples had hoped that would come Wednesday. And then Thursday.
For them, history — and hope — is still on hold.