RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Minutes after a federal judge in Asheville struck down North Carolina's ban on same-sex marriages, Amy Cantrell and Lauren White rushed out of a county office with their newly printed marriage license and exchanged vows on the front steps, their two children in tow.
"This is it folks," exclaimed the Rev. Lisa Bovee-Kemper, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Asheville, to cheering supporters. "By the power vested in me by the state of North Carolina, I now pronounce you married."
The 42-year-old Cantrell, a minister herself, was exuberant. "We've been waiting for this day for years," she said.
The couple of six years have 8-month-old twins: Myla and Eleecia.
"I thought I might pass out at one point," added White, 29. "Pretty typical bride stuff."
U.S. District Court Judge Max O. Cogburn Jr. issued his ruling shortly after 5 p.m. In the chaotic moments afterward, it was difficult to discern exactly who were the first same-sex couple in North Carolina to get legally hitched in their home state.
In the state capital of Raleigh, the register of deeds remained open and began issuing licenses to waiting couples.
Wake County Sheriff's deputies Chad Biggs, 35, and Chris Creech, 46, were among the first to wed there. 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's ruling followed 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.
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 next week. The delay followed a last-ditch effort by Republican leaders at the state legislature to intervene in the cases. Cogburn denied their request.
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.
A statement released by Gov. Pat McCrory's office late Friday said all state agencies would comply with the judge's ruling and change their operations accordingly.
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