How A Single Low-Level Election Could Change Same Sex Marriage In The South

LGBT equality advocates in North Carolina are celebrating the primary win of Mark Chilton, a candidate for a low-level government position who is nonetheless poised to become the first person in the South to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

On the surface, the election appears somewhat mundane: Chilton defeated incumbent Deborah Brooks in the Democratic primary for the Orange County, North Carolina register of deeds, a seemingly innocuous government position primarily tasked with keeping track of county real estate practices and issuing birth certificates, death certificates, and marriage licenses. What makes the election interesting to LGBT advocates is Chilton’s unusual campaign promise: upon taking office, Chilton has vowed to immediately begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, even though doing so would violate “Amendment 1,” a North Carolina law passed in May 2012 making it illegal to recognize or perform same-sex marriages or civil unions in the state.

In an interview with ThinkProgress, Chilton — who is also the former mayor of Carrboro, North Carolina and author of a book on the land records of Orange County — argued that the recent string of federal court cases striking down state bans on same-sex marriage prove that North Carolina’s Amendment 1 is unconstitutional. Thus, given that the oath of office for NC elected officials requires him always to uphold the U.S. Constitution first and the North Carolina constitution second, Chilton plans to grant same-sex couples marriage licenses as part of his legal duty.


“It’s very clear that [Amendment 1] is not constitutional.” Chilton said. “Until a court tells me to stop, I’m going to issue same-sex marriage licenses.”

“The question isn’t whether I can issue these marriage licenses. The question is: why can’t the other 99 North Carolina registers of deeds join me?”

Chilton’s victory comes in the midst of a surge of activism in support for same-sex marriage in North Carolina. Last week the United Church of Christ (UCC) and a diverse cadre of religious clergy filed suit against the state claiming that Amendment 1 was unconstitutional because it violated their free exercise of religion — namely, their right to perform same-sex marriages. In addition, the Campaign for Southern Equality plans to host an action in Raleigh, North Carolina on Thursday where same-sex couples will enter the Wake County Register of Deeds Office and try to apply for marriage licenses as well as attempt to get their licenses from other states recorded. Among the clergy participating in the action is Rev. Nancy Petty, a Baptist minister who is also a plaintiff in the UCC lawsuit.Unofficial county results show Chilton besting Deborah Brooks 6,682 votes to 6,135 votes in yesterday’s Democratic primary. Since Chilton will be running unopposed in November’s general election, his election to Orange County register of deeds is virtually a forgone conclusion.