RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A federal judge in North Carolina struck down the state's gay marriage ban Friday, opening the way for the first same-sex weddings in the state to begin immediately.
U.S. District Court Judge Max O. Cogburn, Jr., in Asheville issued a ruling shortly after 5 p.m. declaring the ban approved by state voters in 2012 unconstitutional.
Cogburn's ruling follows Monday's announcement by the U.S. Supreme Court that it would not hear any appeal of a July ruling by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond striking down Virginia's ban. That court has jurisdiction over North Carolina.
"North Carolina's laws prohibiting same-sex marriage are unconstitutional as a matter of law," wrote Cogburn, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Barack Obama. "The issue before this court is neither a political issue nor a moral issue. It is a legal issue."
Though Cogburn's federal judicial district only covers the western third of the state, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said through a spokeswoman that the federal ruling applies statewide. Cooper, a Democrat, had previously decided not to continue defending the ban after concluding that all possible legal defenses had been exhausted. He declined to be interviewed.
Buncombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger kept his Asheville office open late to begin issuing marriage licenses to the dozens of waiting couples the moment the ban was struck down. When the crowd gathered in the lobby heard the news, they erupted in cheers.
"It's a historical day for the state of North Carolina," Reisinger said. "It's autumn in Asheville and it's a beautiful time to get married."
Asheville is a progressive bastion nestled in the North Carolina mountains known for its vibrant downtown nightlife, art galleries and microbreweries. In anticipation of the ruling earlier this week, an enormous rainbow flag was draped across the front of Asheville's landmark art-deco city hall to signal support for gay rights.
Amy Cantrell and Lauren White, with their two children in tow, walked outside Reisinger's office with their license and were greeted by family and friends. The couple of six years exchanged vows before their minister, standing on the front steps.
"We've been waiting for this day for years," said an exuberant Cantrell, 42.
"I thought I might pass out at one point," added White, 29. "Pretty typical bride stuff."
In the state capital of Raleigh, Wake County Register of Deeds Laura M. Riddick reopened her office Friday evening and began issuing licenses to waiting couples.
Sheriff's deputies Chad Biggs, 35, and Chris Creech, 46, were among the first to wed. They have been together for eight years.
"Even before this I was happy, but I think now that it's on paper and it's legal — it's a commitment between two people," Biggs said.
Cogburn ruled moments after a different federal judge in Greensboro, Chief U.S. District Court Judge William Osteen Jr., put off a decision in two cases he oversees until at least Monday. The delay followed a last-ditch effort by Republican leaders at the state legislature to intervene in the cases.
House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate Leader Phil Berger said they were disappointed. Tillis is currently campaigning for U.S. Senate.
"While we recognize the tremendous passion on all sides of this issue, we promised to defend the will of North Carolina voters because they - not judges and not politicians - define marriage as between one man and one woman and placed that in our state constitution," the Republican legislators said in a joint statement.
The case in which Cogburn ruled was filed by a group of clergy members seeking to marry same-sex couples, making the argument that their inability to do so under state law was an unconstitutional abridgment of their religious freedom.
"We celebrate knowing that this shameful chapter in North Carolina's history has passed," said the Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality. "At the same time we know that you can still be fired simply for being gay in North Carolina. Protection from discrimination in the workplace is the next step in our push for full equality."
Weiss reported from Charlotte. Associated Press Writer Emery P. Dalesio in Raleigh contributed to this report.
Follow Associated Press Writer Michael Biesecker on Twitter.com/mbieseck