Three couples filed a federal lawsuit on Wednesday targeting a North Carolina law allowing magistrates to opt out of officiating marriages with which they have a religious objection, including a same-sex union.
The lawsuit — filed in conjunction with a public education campaign coordinated by the Campaign for Southern Equality and Equality North Carolina — contends the law, which was known as Senate Bill 2, violates the Establishment Clause under the First Amendment and rights to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment.
Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, said the law “distorts the true meaning of religious freedom.”
“From the day it was proposed, it is clear that SB2 is about one thing and one thing only – finding a new way to discriminate against same-sex couples,” Beach-Ferrara said. “We will keep standing up to discrimination until LGBT people are equal in every sphere of life.”
One plaintiff couple is Kay Diane Ansley and Catherine McGaughey, who married in October after being a plaintiff couple in another lawsuit that successfully overturned Amendment One and related laws, which prohibited same-sex marriage in North Carolina entirely.
Another couple is Carol Ann Person and Thomas Roger Person. They were denied a wedding by a magistrate in 1976 because they’re an interracial couple, but later were able to marry after winning a federal lawsuit in 1978. Both legally blind, the couple met at the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in the 1970s and worked for many years at Industries for the Blind in Winston-Salem.
The third couple in the lawsuit is Kelley Penn and Sonja Goodman, a same-sex couple who live in Swain County and are engaged to be married this spring.
The 20-page complaint makes the case Senate Bill 2 is unconstitutional because plantiff couples may have to appear in other civil or criminal proceedings before magistrates “who believe as a matter of publicly sanctioned and financed religious creed that gays and lesbians are not entitled to the full rights of other citizens.”
“Therefore, Senate Bill 2, deliberately and maliciously, compromises, impairs, and violates the constitutional integrity of the judicial system that must provide equal protection of the law to gay and lesbian citizens in McDowell County and throughout North Carolina,” the complaint adds.
Making the argument the law violates the Establishment Clause, the complaint says the measure’s purpose “is to endorse and establish the primacy of a specific religious belief about same-sex marriage above the constitutional obligations of magistrates.”
The lead counsel in the lawsuit, known as Ansley v. North Carolina, is Luke Largess, a partner at the Charlotte-based law firm Tin Fulton Walker & Owen.
“Senate Bill 2 expressly declares that their religious beliefs are superior to their oath of judicial office to uphold and support the federal constitution,” Largess said. “And the law spends public money to advance those religious beliefs. That is a straightforward violation of the First Amendment.”
Under the law, magistrates can opt out of performing a marriage by giving notice to their chief district court judge, even immediately after they receive a request to conduct a ceremony. Once they invoke an opt out, a magistrate isn’t allowed to marry any couple, gay or straight, for a six-month period. At that time, the magistrate either has to refile for an exemption or start facilitating marriages again.
The law requires at least one magistrate who can perform marriages to be present within a county office at least 10 hours per week, over at least three business days per week.
As of September, 32 magistrates had filed notices recusing themselves from performing civil marriages, according to North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts. In McDowell County, all four magistrates have reportedly invoked a recusal under the law and magistrates from Rutherford County have been reportedly filling in since July to provide marriage services in McDowell County.
Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality North Carolina, said Senate Bill 2 is “unconstitutional and does not represent the values of inclusion on which North Carolina was built.”
“It targets same-sex couples directly for discrimination and in the process also restricts access to taxpayer-funded government services for all North Carolinians,” Sgro said.
The North Carolina state legislature enacted Senate Bill 2 via an override vote in June after North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, vetoed the legislation. The Blade has placed a call to the governor’s office seeking comment on the lawsuit.
One question was whether North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, would defend Senate Bill 2 in court. After a federal appeals court ruled against Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage, Cooper declined to defend his state’s ban any further on the basis no argument could be made in favor of the law.
Noelle Talley, a Cooper spokesperson, told the Blade despite the attorney general’s position on the marriage ban, her boss would defend Senate Bill 2.
“Although Attorney General Cooper personally opposes this legislation, our office will do its duty under the law to defend the state just as it has in more than a dozen other recent cases challenging laws passed by the General Assembly,” Talley said.
Senate Bill 2 became law amid movement in state legislatures around the country of religious freedom bills seeking to undermine the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. Although North Carolina lawmakers succeeded in passing Senate Bill 2, most of the religious freedom bills died in state legislatures.