Mecklenburg register expects flood of same-sex marriage licenses

By Mark Price, msprice@charlotteobserver.com
Originally published by The Charlotte Observer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — David Granberry has not played a crucial role in North Carolina’s struggle over same-sex marriage, but that could change at any moment.

As Mecklenburg County’s Register of Deeds, he is the official whom Charlotte’s gay and lesbian couples must visit, once the state allows them to legally apply for a marriage license.

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In his own filing Wednesday in the United Church of Christ’s case against the state’s anti-LGBT amendment, Mecklenburg County Register of Deeds J. David Granberry asked the court to delay marriage for same-sex couples:

Granberry took no position on the legality of same-sex marriage itself, but said: “However, if the Court determines that the North Carolina Marriage Laws are unconstitutional as requested by the Plaintiffs, the Defendant Granberry respectfully requests the Court to allow a reasonable period of time for his office and for the Offices of the Registers of Deeds throughout the State to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.”

In the filing, Granberry said his and other offices are not ready, do not have proper forms or technical system changes and that it could take two weeks to implement changes.

Matt Comer

Granberry believes it is inevitable, given a Supreme Court decision not to challenge lower court rulings that favored gay marriage. But for now, he and all the other county registers in North Carolina are waiting, not knowing when a judicial order will declare the state ban unconstitutional.

Same-sex couples have been calling his office for days, asking if they can apply. And at least one gay couple showed up at 11 a.m. Wednesday with an expectation that state permission could be granted.

That couple, Scott Lindsley and Joey Hewell of Charlotte, were still there waiting in the afternoon when the office closed for the day.

“We figure it could happen any minute, and when you’ve been fighting years for something, waiting a few hours is no big deal,” said Hewell, adding that he and Lindsley have been a couple for 13 years. “Even we are surprised at how fast it’s all happening. We’ve been sitting all day, keeping up with latest developments on our iPads.”

Granberry expects the much-anticipated judicial order to prompt crowds of same-sex couples to march into his office at 720 E. Fourth St. near uptown, so he has arranged for extra staff and an extra computer.

A new license registration form has been crafted by Granberry, who removed lines referring to male and female applicants. Instead, the form will say “Applicant 1” and “Applicant 2.” Some states, such as California, have multiple choices for form answers, including “Bride, Groom, Neither,” he said.

Another license question that will need to be reconsidered, he said, is the one asking for the bride’s maiden name. It can be left blank for the time being, he said.

Granberry calls his form “a Band-Aid for something that needs major surgery.

“If I’d been waiting 20 years to get married, I don’t think I’d want a license form that has been scrawled and half done, with things marked out,” said Granberry. “Some people like to actually frame their marriage certificate and hang it up. I want them (same-sex couples) to have a form that is as good as anyone else’s.”

Technically, the state Department of Health and Human Services calls the shots on what questions are required for a marriage license. The department will eventually issue an official license form of its own. That won’t happen until after the ban has been officially lifted, officials say.

Granberry says that is making it tougher for many registers in the state, who don’t have the capability to alter their forms like he’s done for Mecklenburg County.

Wayne Nixon, the Cabarrus County register of deeds, said he expects the state will supply his office with a new license form if same-sex marriages are allowed. His office had received a couple of calls Wednesday asking about the status of the state law after Charleston officials accepted same-sex licenses.

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“We’re just waiting like everyone else to see when the issue is decided,” Nixon said.

Registers of deeds in Gaston and Union counties agreed, and said they were prepared to scratch out things on the existing forms to comply.

Granberry said it could take the state and various county registers at least two weeks to create, test and implement a new state form.

An example of the points to be considered, he said, is whether a gender selection box should be added. That could apply not only in same-sex marriages, but also in cases involving transgender people who are seeking to wed, he said.

He said the changes will impact numerous computer programs run by the state, from genealogy to property records.

Experts are likening the transition to a period when laws against interracial marriage were struck down. Before that, two types of marriage records were kept in Mecklenburg: one for white couples and one for blacks, Granberry said.

It’s possible that the state could call for separate forms for same-sex couples, which would further complicate the situation, said Granberry, who is a Democrat.

His office is already among the busiest in the state, handling 190,496 transactions a year, including real estate related documents. On average, the office issues 27 marriage licenses a day, and the number has been steadily going up since the recession ended. The biggest day this year, Sept. 19, was 63 licenses, he said.

Those forms can be filled out in advance online, and Granberry said same-sex couples can do that, even before changes are implemented.

Lindsley and Hewell did just that on Wednesday afternoon, putting them at the top of the waiting list. If licenses are issued Thursday, they could have theirs in as quick as 10 minutes.

The two are planning a formal ceremony, with all their family and friends in attendance. No date has been set.

“We know it’s just a matter of time,” said Lindsley, who is in the real estate business. “If it doesn’t happen today (Wednesday), we plan to be back in the morning. I’ll bring my work with me and we’ll sit and wait. We’ll be here whenever the news breaks.”

— Charlotte Observer staff writer Adam Bell contributed

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