South Carolina chiefs can now legally marry couples

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GREY COURT, S.C. - South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford has signed a bill allowing American Indian chiefs and spiritual leaders in the state to perform marriages. One couple already has married under the new state law.

House Bill H3798 became effective immediately upon his signing June 16.

Soon after, Chief Gene Norris of the Lower Eastern Cherokee Nation of South Carolina married former Waccamaw Chief Harold D. Hatcher, chair of the state's Indian Affairs Commission, and Susan Hayes. Waccamaw tribal headquarters are in Aynor.

''What made this such a historical event was for the first time in many years, a chief or spiritual person of a recognized Indian entity in the state of South Carolina could perform a wedding ceremony and sign a marriage license,'' Norris said.

He said the couple was married at a pow wow in Gray Court, headquarters of the Lower Eastern Cherokee Nation.

The new law was sponsored by state Rep. Garry R. Smith (R-District 27), a businessman of Greenville in the same district in which Norris resides. Norris helped Smith push the bill to become a state law.

Smith said he and Norris, who is a neighbor, worked on the bill from the beginning. Also aiding were other chiefs like Hatcher and Louie Chavis of the Beaver Creek Indians.

''It will allow chiefs and spiritual leaders of tribes in the state recognized by the Commission for Minority Affairs to performed marriages,'' he said. Previously, only ministers, rabbis and registered notary publics could legally perform marriages in the state.

Smith added that a South Carolina tribal chief previously could perform a wedding ceremony; in order for the license to be legal, the chief had to be registered as notaries public. The new law eliminates that requirement.

He introduced the bill in the House in March 2007 as an amendment to the state's 1976 law that gave permission to persons such as ministers, rabbis and notaries public to perform marriages. As amended, Section 20-1-20 now reads: ''Only ministers of the Gospel, Jewish rabbis ... and the chief or spiritual leader of a Native American Indian entity recognized by the South Carolina Commission for Minority Affairs pursuant to Section 1-31-40 are authorized to administer a marriage ceremony in this state.''

It was adopted June 5, the last day that the state legislators were in session in Columbia.

''I suppose it would make sense to congratulate a few of the other Native leaders in the state as well, this time as well as the last time. Under their guidance and perseverance, South Carolina's Indians have taken another step forward,'' Hatcher said in his newsletter.

South Carolina has seven state-recognized Native tribes and groups, and one federally recognized tribe.