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Same-Sex Marriage in South Carolina After Obergefell
The US Supreme Court made history with the 2015 decision Obergefell v Hodges, ruling that same-sex couples have a right to marry under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.
Before the Obergefell decision, states made their own laws regarding same-sex marriage. After the decision, all states were required to allow same-sex couples to marry and to recognize such unions that were performed in other states.
This is the background to the 2021 South Carolina Supreme Court decision in Swicegood v Thompson (read the court’s short decision here) regarding same-sex common law marriages and whether Obergefell applies retroactively.
The SC Court of Appeals Cites SC Law Prohibiting Same-Sex Marriage Post-Obergefell
Swicegood v Thompson first went before a family court in 2014 which ultimately found that the Obergefell decision does apply retroactively, and that that Cathy J. Swicegood and Polly A. Thompson, who were domestic partners for over 13 years, did establish a common-law marriage.
When the case came before the SC Court of Appeals in 2020, it found that Swicegood and Thompson had failed to establish a common law marriage because:
- South Carolina Code Section 20-1-15 prohibited same-sex marriage, which prevents the formation of a common law marriage between same-sex couples, and
- Swicegood and Thompson did not have the intent and mutual agreement necessary to enter a legally binding common law marriage.
As to the first point, the appeals court did recognize that the Obergerfell decision must be applied retroactively. Still, it found that SC Code Section 20-1-15 constituted a “pre-existing, separate, independent rule of state law, having nothing to do with retroactivity,” which formed an “independent legal basis” for the finding that Swicegood and Thompson didn’t establish a common law marriage.
The appeals court’s decision is significantly longer than the supreme court’s and contains the background of the case and its discussion of the law. You can find that here.
The SC Supreme Court Declares the SC Law Void
Upon appeal, the SC Supreme Court vacated in part and affirmed in part the appeals court’s decision.
It noted that in Obergefell, the US Supreme Court held that “same sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry,” and all state laws challenged in that case were “invalid to the extend they exclude same sex couples from civil marriage on the same terms and conditions as opposite sex couples.”
The Obergefell decision rendered SC Code Section 20-1-15 void ab initio (“void from the beginning”) and should be treated like it never existed. That means it cannot serve as an impediment to the recognition of a same-sex marriage predating Obergefell, so that part of the appeals court’s decision was vacated. However, the supreme court did affirm, without further discussion, that no common law marriage was established between Swicegood and Thompson.
The State of Same-Sex Marriage and Common Law Marriage in South Carolina
While the law prohibiting same-sex marriage is still on the books in South Carolina, as of the Obergefell decision by the US Supreme Court and the Swicegood decision discussed here by the SC Supreme Court, the right to same-sex marriage in the state of South Carolina is protected.
Common-law marriage, on the other hand, was abolished in South Carolina in July 2019. Read more about that here.