McDowell County was confronted Tuesday with the issue of same-sex marriage when a local lesbian couple sought to apply for a marriage license at the Register of Deeds office.
Although they were denied a license or even an application for one, Keisha Hollifield and her partner Dericka said they hope their union will someday be recognized in both North Carolina and their home county of McDowell.
“We want our marriage to be recognized by the state and more importantly in our hometown,” said Dericka.
They were joined by 30 to 40 supporters, many of whom were from the Campaign for Southern Equality headquartered in Asheville. But some of their supporters and friends were from McDowell County, too. A person drove by and gave them the thumbs up as they walked to the Register of Deeds office.
Meanwhile, around 150 supporters of traditional marriage rallied in front of the McDowell County Courthouse. Some of them held signs saying “Repent or perish” or “Better to obey God. Rather than Man. Adam & Eve – Not Another Way.”
Tuesday’s action was part of the WE DO Campaign, which calls for full equality under the law for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender families. The Campaign for Southern Equality is “a national effort to assert the full humanity and equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in American life and to increase public support for LGBT rights.” The organization coordinates the WE DO Campaign where lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender couples appear at Register of Deeds offices across the South and apply for marriage licenses, knowing full well that their home states do not legally recognize such unions. The campaign is held “in order to call for full equality under federal and state law and to resist discriminatory marriage laws.”
The Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara is the executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality. She told The McDowell News that McDowell was the 28th county in North Carolina for the WE DO Campaign.
As the event unfolded, the couple and their supporters were on one side of the courthouse lawn while the traditional marriage rally was held on the other side.
The couple and their supporters gathered in prayer before going to the Register of Deeds office. Beach-Ferrara, who is ordained in the United Church of Christ, led the prayer.
“Let us stand tall,” she said in her prayer. “Let us stay connected. Let us know we are doing your will.”
Then, Keisha, Dericka, members of the Campaign for Southern Equality and other supporters walked over to the Register of Deeds office. The couple walked up to the counter and asked Register of Deeds Tonia Hampton for a marriage license. Hampton denied them a license citing North Carolina law. They then asked for an application for a marriage license, too. That too was denied.
In October of last year, the Buncombe County Register of Deeds office began accepting marriage license applications from same-sex couples, the first office in the South to do so. Pending approval from the state Attorney General Roy Cooper, the Buncombe Register of Deeds will grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The couple then asked if Hampton would even sign a document stating that their request was denied. She declined to do so.
“We are a loving couple and we want the right for our marriage to be recognized in this state,” said Dericka to Hampton and other county officials. “We love McDowell County and I was raised here.”
County Manager Chuck Abernathy, Commission Chairman Randy Hollifield and Old Fort Mayor Rick Hensley, who’s married to Hampton, were all present at the Register of Deeds office when the couple attempted to get a marriage license.
“When the law changes, we will consider it and do what the law says,” said Abernathy to the couple.
“We’re not going to stop showing up until the laws change,” said Beach-Ferrara.
After being denied the marriage license, the couple went outside and answered questions from the media. They said they felt good about what they had done.
“I am glad we could bring attention to this,” said Dericka. “Other couples can realize we’re not alone in this town.”
Keisha Hollifield said it was “frustrating and kind of disheartening” that Hampton would not even formally acknowledge that they had been denied a marriage license.
While they are talking with reporters, traditional marriage supporters continued their rally on the courthouse lawn.
“We did expect some protestors,” said Keisha. “We’re glad they are here.”
Keisha, 34, and Dericka, 25, plan to be legally married on Saturday in Washington, D.C. On that day, Dericka will take her partner’s last name. They also plan to have children.
“I would love for my children to be raised in this town,” said Dericka.
However, they have to deal with hostility too.
“We get some bad looks sometimes,” said Keisha.
A news release from the Campaign for Southern Equality states that an estimated 68 same-sex couples live in McDowell County, according to the 2010 U.S. Census data. In addition, same-sex couples in North Carolina are waiting on a ruling from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Bostic v. Schaefer that could be issued any day. This ruling could result in Amendment One being struck down and same-sex couples being able to get legally married in their home states.
“People are hurt by this law every single day,” said Beach-Ferrara. “This law is also not discriminatory, it’s immoral.”
Launched in 2011 as an initiative of the Campaign for Southern Equality, the WE DO Campaign has involved more than 115 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples requesting or recording marriage licenses in their hometowns across the South. The next WE DO events are planned for Louisville, Ky. and Greenville, S.C.
The Campaign for Southern Equality previously said they were invited to bring the WE DO Campaign to McDowell County. It was the first such event held here.
Meanwhile, the rally in support of traditional marriage was taking place nearby. Rev. Ron Baity, president of Return America, was the guest speaker at the rally. Commissioner David Walker and his father, the Rev. Tom Walker, attended this gathering.
Return America is an organization that seeks to “restore our nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage.” It advocates for “sanctity of life, sanctity of marriage, biblical morality, religious liberty, national security.” Return America held the final rally in Raleigh in support of Amendment One, which drew more than 8,000.
Baity is also the pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem. He told The McDowell News that his organization was invited to be here as well.
“Our purpose in being here today is to stand up for biblical marriage as defined as being one man and one woman as in this Scriptures,” said Baity.
He said this was the first time he and his organization were present at a courthouse during a WE DO Campaign action.
“I am in agreement that we’re supposed to love each other but there are certain declarative standards,” he said. “They can’t find one passage in the Bible that justifies marriage as being two men or two women.”
One supporter of same-sex marriage apparently tried to disrupt the traditional marriage rally by shouting at them.
“Our people acted with Christian distinction,” said Baity.