WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – A lesbian who sought a North Carolina marriage license with her partner and was rejected under a state law banning same-sex marriage was arrested with another person Thursday after they refused to leave a government office where several gay and lesbian couples were turned away.
The civil disobedience followed a day after President Barack Obama publicly endorsed same-sex marriage, and two days after North Carolina voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as solely between a man and a woman.
The protest came amid attempts by a gay rights group, Campaign for Southern Equality, to broaden public support to allow same-sex marriage and more protests are planned in coming days at other county offices in North Carolina that issue marriage licenses
Nine gay and lesbian couples each presented completed forms and identification to a clerk at the local Register of Deeds office in Winston-Salem, but were refused because state law recognizes only heterosexual couples.
"We cannot issue you a marriage license because it is not allowed under North Carolina law," a clerk told Brent Morin, 36, and his partner Gerald Morin, 42, of Winston-Salem.
On Tuesday, North Carolina became the 30th state to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The state already has laws that prohibit gay marriage, but adding the prohibition to the state constitution will make that much harder to change.
"Can you at least acknowledge on here that you're denying it and the date?" Brent Morin asked, his ring-bearing left hand trembling. The clerk complied. Other clerks smiled sheepishly or shook the hands extended to them by couples they had turned away.
"I just want to point out that we're married in the District of Columbia, our nation's capital," Morin said. "Thank you."
"Hopefully, one day you'll be able to say yes," said a woman who was the first to request a license with her partner. She and most of the other couples declined to give their names. A group spokesman said most couples feared trouble with their employers or other complications.
Mary Jamis, 52, of Mocksville, and a heterosexual friend who joined the protest, Mary Lea Bradford of Winston-Salem, were arrested after they blocked the entrance to the marriage license office and refused to leave more than 30 minutes after closing time.
A county administrator tried to talk the women into leaving and avoiding arrest, but the two insisted they would stay unless Jamis was issued a marriage license for her and her partner, Starr Johnson, 48.
A half dozen female officers then crowded around Jamis and Bradford, who were seated. The officers asked them to stand, handcuffed them and led them out a side door and into a van to be booked at the county sheriff's department across the street.
They were charged with second-degree trespass, a low-level misdemeanor, and released without bond, authorities said.
Christine Regan, 35, and Megan Silbert, 34, of Winston-Salem, were rejected for the marriage license while a heterosexual couple a few steps away were receiving theirs.
Nate Bounds, 29, and Alicia Picou, 32, of Winston-Salem said they planned to marry May 19, when his father could arrive from his home overseas.
Picou said she did not object to same-sex couples being allowed to wed.
"Why not? I don't think it's really anybody's business," she said. I don't think it's the government's business to be telling people what to do with their private lives."
The demonstration attracted no counter-protest and it's likely few inside the sprawling county office building knew the protest was under way.
The Campaign for Southern Equality's "We Do" effort that sends same-sex couples to fruitlessly ask for marriage licenses started last fall in Asheville, culminating in the arrest of a lesbian couple who said they had been together for 30 years. That two-week effort was followed by efforts in South Carolina in February.
Supporters of North Carolina's newly passed amendment says it will make the definition of marriage more clear; opponents said it could harm health benefits for unmarried couples and affect domestic violence laws.
The campaign expects to stage three similar demonstrations Friday in county offices in Bakersville, Marshall and Asheville, where further arrests are planned. Marriage-office demonstrations are planned next week in Asheboro and Charlotte.
Obama declared his support for gay marriage on Wednesday in a historic announcement that gave the polarizing social issue a more prominent role in his re-election bid.