Former Methodist minister Jimmy Creech wrote about his experience fighting for marriage equality for same-sex couples in his book Adam’s Gift: A Memoir of a Pastor’s Calling to Defy the Church’s Persecution of Lesbians and Gays in 2011. The book is new in paperback this fall. In this post he writes about his joy after a judge overturned North Carolina’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage on Friday afternoon, October 10.
Like everyone, I didn’t expect and wasn’t prepared for the US Supreme Court’s history-making announcement on Monday, October 6, that opened the door to marriage equality in North Carolina. I expected the court to make a positive ruling, but not before June 2015.
In May, Joni and Gina invited me to officiate at a wedding ceremony for them on October 18. Their plan was to be legally married in the District of Columbia on the 17th, and have a wedding ceremony the next day with their families and friends. While they badly wanted to be legally married in their home state, waiting until June 2015 was just too long a wait. When the US Supreme Court’s decision made their legal marriage in North Carolina a possibility, the three of us were excited that they might not have to wait. However, because The United Methodist Church had taken my credentials of ordination in 1999 because I violated church law by conducting a wedding for two men, someone else would have to conduct the ceremony on the 18th for it to be legal.
On Wednesday, I returned home from an errand to find a message on our answering machine. Ken and Steve, and Michael and Mike, had called to ask if I would conduct a double wedding for them on November 15, should a federal judge declare North Carolina’s ban on same-gender marriage unconstitutional. I’ve known both couples for more than twenty years. Ken and Steve have been together for twenty-eight years and Michael and Mike, for more than twelve. I couldn’t say no to them, and I really wanted to officiate at Joni and Gina’s wedding. But, I didn’t have the credentials.
It was deeply painful to me for many reasons when my credentials were taken away in 1999. Losing the ability to celebrate weddings with loving couples was an especially painful one. Without credentials, I could no longer pronounce a couple married or sign a marriage license. I agonized about what to do now that marriage equality was about to become a reality in North Carolina. I knew I could not regain my credentials from The United Methodist Church; so, I began to search for another way to get the credentials I needed. I discovered the American Marriage Ministries, a non-denominational interfaith church based in Washington State, and was able to obtain from it the necessary credentials to legally officiate weddings.
Friday evening, Chris and I were dressed to go to Durham for a production of The Phantom of the Opera, with our daughter, Natalia. It was late afternoon. We’d waited all day, anticipating an announcement regarding marriage equality in North Carolina. We’d been waiting all week for the announcement, which now seemed wouldn’t come until the following week. Then the news broke a little before 6:00 PM that US District Court Judge Max Cogburn had declared that the North Carolina constitutional marriage amendment, denying same-gender couples the right to marry, was unconstitutional. When the amendment passed in 2012, the pain was excruciating. With the news of Judge Cogburn’s decision, the joy was extravagant! Dressed for the opera, we went down to the Wake County Justice Center where marriage licenses were being issued to same-gender couples. Phantom would have to wait.
As we approached the Justice Center entrance, we were surprised to find Ken and Steve walking just ahead of us. They were preparing to grill hamburgers when they heard the news. Even though they planned a November wedding and had plenty of time to get their license, they couldn’t wait. The day was too historic not to be part of. They left the hamburgers and hurried to the Justice Center. When Ken and Steve saw us, they immediately asked if I’d officiate their wedding as soon as they got their license instead of waiting so it would be legal right away. I enthusiastically agreed. And, so it happened: on the steps of the Wake County Justice Center, with Chris and Lewie Wells as witnesses, Ken and Steve spoke vows of love and fidelity to each other and I pronounced them married! This was the first legal marriage I’ve been able to do since 1999. Ken and Steve still plan to have their ceremony on November 15 for their families and friends, along with Michael and Mike. Now, I look forward to officiating at the marriage of Joni and Gina on October 18.
Chris and I went to the Justice Center to witness history and to be with the same-gender loving couples who had waited so long to enjoy the rights and protections – and respect – that marriage provides. It was an extraordinary scene, filled with laughter, smiles and tears! Ms. Laura Riddick, the Wake County Register of Deeds, graciously extended the hours of her office from its usual closing time of 5:15 to 9:00 PM to accommodate the couples. Her staff was fantastic, greeting the couples with smiles and patiently guiding them through the application process with sincere kindness. One staff person left her station to bring me a tissue so I could dry the tears from my eyes as I watched Ken and Steve fill out the marriage license application.
I’ve never doubted marriage equality would come to North Carolina, as it will come eventually to all fifty states. I just didn’t expect it to come so swiftly and in such a dramatically surprising way. It was ironic, with all the religion-based arguments in support of the NC marriage amendment, that the case upon which Judge Cogburn’s decision was based was a lawsuit brought by the United Church of Christ and other clergy from around the state. They argued that the marriage amendment denied them the free exercise of religion because it denied them the ability to conduct marriage ceremonies for same-gender couples. Not only did the amendment deny the right of same-gender couples to marry in North Carolina and legal recognition to couples married in other states, the amendment made conducting same-gender marriages a punishable illegal act for clergy.
Beyond being history-making, the advent of marriage equality in North Carolina inaugurates a reality of stability, security and protection for same-gender couples heretofore unknown on a personal level. Last night, I saw same-gender couples leaving the Justice Center, walking toward the heart of Raleigh holding hands with a newfound sense of freedom, equality and dignity. Bigotry dies hard and much more work is necessary to achieve full legal equality and social acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. A big step was taken in North Carolina toward its ultimate demise on Friday, October 10, 2014. We can celebrate!