ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — For years, Mitch Fortune and Jake Crouch have been prevented from getting married by laws making same-sex marriage illegal in North Carolina.
So when they heard the county's top record-keeper was going to accept same-sex marriage license requests Tuesday, they headed to his office. With his action, Buncombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger became one of the first officials in the South to take such applications from same-sex couples.
"This is a big step," said Crouch, 29, a climatologist who works for the federal government.
Thirty-four-year-old Fortune agreed, adding that they had been discussing marriage for much of their 7-year relationship. They bought a house together in Asheville three years ago.
"I'd like to see this happen soon," he said.
Reisinger accepted marriage license requests from 10 same-sex couples on Tuesday, despite a 2012 amendment to the state constitution forbidding such marriages.
Reisinger said he will hold the licenses and ask state Attorney General Roy Cooper for legal advice. Reisinger said he believes the state's ban is unconstitutional.
Cooper said Monday that he supports gay marriage but will defend the ban. A spokeswoman for Cooper said the licenses cannot be issued.
That position was reinforced Tuesday by Grayson Kelley, the chief deputy attorney general. In a letter to Reisinger, he said state law presently "prohibits the issuance of a marriage license to same-sex couples."
He noted a lawsuit challenging the law is pending. It was filed after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that the federal government can't refuse gay couples equal rights if they've been married in states that recognize same-sex marriage.
"The courts will ultimately decide whether North Carolina's prohibition of same-sex marriages is constitutional," he wrote.
The Campaign for Southern Equality has been working to find someone in each county to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples as part of its "We Do" campaign.
The group praised Reisinger's decision, but others criticized him.
"You cannot change the law by breaking the law," said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition.
The Rev. Franklin Graham, head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the Charlotte-based ministry his father founded, said he was not surprised by the same-sex marriage requests to the county.
"I know it's not over. It's going to be pushed. But the people have spoken in North Carolina," Graham said in an interview. "That's their desire as a state."
Reisinger said he is not breaking the law by simply asking the attorney general for clarification and would abide by Cooper's ruling.
"I understand that not everyone agrees with the step I have taken today, and I am grateful to be part of the continued nationwide dialogue on marriage equality," he said.
As it has elsewhere, gay marriage has become a divisive issue in the state once known for its progressive Southern politics.
State law had already banned gay marriage, but voters in 2012 approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage solely as a union between a man and a woman.
Many in Ashveville are receptive to efforts on behalf of same-sex couples. The bohemian university town in western North Carolina has a large gay and lesbian population.
Two years ago, a same-sex couple was arrested after refusing to leave Reisinger's office when the pair was turned down for a marriage license. The arrests followed a rally that drew 300 people, where same-sex couples were blessed by clergy.
At dawn on Tuesday, about 100 supporters gathered in a downtown church with the couples who planned to apply for the licenses.
The Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, told the crowd they will keep pressing the issue. She called the state's ban on same-sex marriage "morally wrong."
The couples and their supporters then walked a block to Reisinger's office.
The first couple to request a license: Brenda Clark, 66, a retired educator, and Carol McCrory, 70, a lawyer. They have been together for 25 years.
Reisinger congratulated them and said he would ask the attorney general for permission before signing their license.
"I think it's pretty clear that there is a contradiction between state law and federal law, and we want some clarification," Reisinger said.
McCrory praised Reisinger for his courage in accepting their marriage license request. "I'm very proud of you," she said.
Reisinger's announcement Monday that he would accept licenses came hours after Cooper said he supports same-sex marriage. But Cooper also said his personal views won't prevent him from upholding state law.
Thirteen states and the District of Columbia permit same-sex marriages.
Later in the day, Crouch said he and fortune feel at home in Asheville but still have to be careful.
"Being gay in the South is not easy. You second guess yourself if you can even hold hands walking down the street."
Fortune is a wedding planner and sees straight couples getting married each week.
"It's an emotional roller coaster," he said.
AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll and researcher Judith Ausuebel in New York contributed to this report.