GREENSBORO — The grooms stood in front of a minister in a corner of the Guilford County Register of Deeds office shortly before 7 p.m. and affirmed during their vows that there was no legal reason they couldn’t be wed — hours after a judge struck down North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriages.
And just like that, history was made.
At 6:52 p.m., email marketing consultant Brad Newton and his partner, real estate agent Frank Brooks, became the first same-sex couple to marry in Guilford County.
“I pronounce they are ... husbands,” said minister and friend, the Rev. Ches Kennedy, as the men hugged in front of a throng of media cameras and to the cheers of friends snapping pictures and wiping away tears.
The two men who met 18 years ago, had just an hour earlier left the register of deeds office, which is in the shadow of U.S. District Court, where Judge William Osteen signaled he wouldn’t rule on the issue before Monday.
“We knew we were going to be together the rest of our lives. Now, it’s official,” Newton said as the two held hands.
Brooks echoed that sentiment.
“Now, we are no longer two men living in the same house in the eyes of the law,” he said.
All eyes had been on Osteen, who was appointed by Republican President George W. Bush and who had signaled he was ready to rule Thursday before a flurry of motions by the state’s top Republican legislative leaders, who hired lawyers to argue why Amendment One — which defines marriage as between a man and a woman — should stand.
But late Friday, after county register of deeds offices across the state had closed, it was a President Barack Obama appointee, U.S. Max O. Cogburn, Jr. from Asheville, who ruled that there were no valid arguments to keep same-sex couples from being able to marry like heterosexual couples.
“The issue before this court is neither a political issue nor a moral issue,” Cogburn wrote. “It is a legal issue and it is clear as a matter of what is now settled law in the Fourth Circuit that North Carolina laws prohibiting same sex marriage, refusing to recognize same sex marriages originating elsewhere, and/or threatening to penalize those who would solemnize such marriages, are unconstitutional.”
Gov. Pat McCrory also issued a statement: “The administration is moving forward with the execution of the court’s ruling and will continue to do so unless otherwise notified by the courts.”
After being notified of the historic ruling, Jeff Thigpen, Guilford County’s register of deeds, returned to the closed office building with his son and a McDonald’s bag in hand.
“Do you want to do interviews or get married?” Thigpen asked the gathering of couples on the lawn.
Eight employees followed Thigpen to begin processing forms.
It was a different scene from just an hour earlier, when same-sex couples wept as Thigpen locked up shortly after 5 p.m. Several of them had been outside the register of deeds office since noon — the deadline Osteen had given lawyers hired by Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House Speaker Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenburg) to file written paperwork to intervene in the case.
“I know that all of you are weary ... the reality as I see it right now is that the judge isn’t going to issue an order,” Thigpen said.
The hurt showed in the red-rimmed eyes of Ashley Benton, who, at 5:15 p.m., stood in the embrace of her partner, Latoya Anderson, a Greensboro police officer.
“Tillis and Berger have mired the process,” said Chris Sgro of Equality North Carolina. “Shame on them.”
But that all changed with a stroke of the judge’s pen — that very few saw coming — and to the chagrin of Berger and Tillis.
“While we recognize the tremendous passion on all sides of this issue, we promised to defend the will of North Carolina voters because they — not judges and not politicians — define marriage as between one man and one woman and placed that in our state constitution,” they said in a joint statement. “It is disappointing this decision was made without North Carolina’s law receiving its day in court, and we will continue to work to ensure the voice of the voters is heard.”
That had no standing in the quickly crowding register of deeds office, where many of those same-sex partners seeking a marriage license had brought their children.
Sgro came back with his parents and younger siblings, who were here from Philadelphia for a relative’s baby shower. They were able to watch him wed longtime partner Ryan Butler in an open space in the register of deed’s office.
“I’ve always considered him my son, but it’s wonderful seeing them voice their commitment,” said Sgro’s father, Mike Sgro.
Around them others were in various stages of filling out marriage paperwork.
“It’s the first for me. It’s the second for him,” an elderly man told a clerk typing the information into a computer. The second man had been divorced after a heterosexual marriage.
Another clerk was printing out the paperwork for a lesbian couple, who were double-checking the information.
“You’re going to make me cry,” clerk Sheika Washington told the women, who were tearing up themselves.
Kennedy and the Rev. Julie Peeples of Congregational United Church of Christ in Greensboro, were the only two clergy present and married many of the 24 couples getting licenses Friday.
Not everyone there was pleased with what they saw.
A man walked in off the street pleading, “Please don’t do this! This is against God’s word.”
Ron Tuck, a self-described street preacher, was immediately approached by the two ministers.
“These are people who have been hurt already,” Peeples said.
Peeples and Kennedy tried to get him outside to talk. Then they asked him if they could all say a prayer together. Tuck left, and people cheered as he exited.
“I think it was a reminder that there’s still work to do and we need to be as gracious as possible with people struggling with this,” Peeples said. “I do understand that he thinks he’s motivated by his understanding of the Bible and the faith. There was no point arguing and debating with him at that moment.”
Outside, Tuck remained undeterred.
“Somebody needs to take a stand,” he said. “This is not right.”
As Thigpen walked through the room, others were thanking him for taking a different stand.
He paused and looked at a couple in an embrace.
“Indescribably amazing,” he said.