Haywood couple stands against N.C. gay marriage ban
Amy Leonhart and Louise Jones met 17 years ago at church.
“The best match for me was going to be a church girl,” said Jones, a 60-year-old native of Tennessee. When she met Leonhart, “It’s kind of like everybody else, things just kind of clicked.”
And like all good Southern-raised women, they even had a traditional church wedding, albeit at an American Baptist Church in Chicago where they lived until moving to Maggie Valley in 2001.
“It was very traditional, except there was no groom,” said 46-year-old West Virginia native Leonhart.
Leonhart and Jones officially married last year in New York, which legalized same-sex marriages in 2011, but there was nothing on record in their home county, Haywood, that actually said the words: “Amy Leonhart married Louise Jones.”
At least not until Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013.
Inspired by similar actions taken by friends in Asheville, Leonhart and Jones decided to make a stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights in Haywood County.
“You are standing up to authority,” said Mandy Kjellstrom, a church friend who showed up at the Haywood County Register of Deeds office to support them. “It’s not easy.”
As part of a movement led by the Campaign for Southern Equality, an LGBT rights advocacy group, couples are attempting to register in North Carolina their marriage licenses from states where same-sex marriage is legal. It is not legal in North Carolina. Two years ago, the Campaign for Southern Equality asked same-sex couples to visit their Register of Deeds office and ask for a marriage license. Leonhart and Jones participated in Asheville.
Although N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper told the Associated Press that he personally supported same-sex marriage, he said he must follow the state constitution, which has explicitly prohibited same-sex marriage since a voter-approved referendum passed in 2012. Cooper has advised Registers of Deeds in the state not to accept same-sex marriage application, though the office in Asheville is.
Leonhart is optimistic. If people just knew her and her wife or realized that they know someone from the LGBT community, they would come around and support their marriage.
“Every time one person meets us it could make a change,” Leonhart said.
Surrounded by several friends — there for moral support — the nervous couple walked into the Haywood County Register of Deeds office on Tuesday and asked to register their marriage license as a public document. The obviously surprised clerks working there turned them away, saying they couldn’t register marriage licenses from another county or state.
“I didn’t see that coming,” said Jones, who then phoned the Campaign for Southern Equality attorneys for legal advice.
The ladies stood outside the office in the Haywood County Historic Courthouse wondering if that was the law or if that was simply a way to keep them from filing their marriage license as a public document.
Someone from the Campaign for Southern Equality rang back and told them to go back in the office and ask what statute the clerks were referencing. The news was better the second time around. The clerks were fairly certain that Leonhart and Jones could pay $26, and their license would be listed as a public document, but they wanted to run it by Haywood County Register of Deeds Sherri Rogers, who was at a meeting.
About 30 minutes later, Rogers, all smiles, came nearly jogging into the courthouse and apologized for the wait. She explained that the county can’t register out-of-county or out-of-state marriage licenses, be they for heterosexual or same-sex couples, at its office as a marriage license. Similar to birth certificates, marriage licenses can only be filed in the county from which they were issued.
However, Rogers said she could accept the marriage license as a public document and place it in the office’s real estate books, somewhat of a catch-all for any documents that aren’t vital records.
“Somebody could bring a paper bag to me, and if it met the standards, I can take it,” Rogers explained.
More than an hour after first showing up at the courthouse, Leonhart and Jones became the first same-sex couple with documents acknowledging their marriage housed in the Haywood County Register of Deeds office.
“We got it done,” Jones said. “That was a good thing.”