Couples Sue Over Gay Marriage Law in North Carolina

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on December 23, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A North Carolina law that allows officials to refuse to perform marriage ceremonies as a religious accommodation is being challenged by 3 couples. Although the law arose from local opposition to same-sex marriage, the challenge is brought by a mixed group of plaintiffs.

They filed a lawsuit yesterday arguing that the state is violating the First Amendment of the US Constitution and using taxpayer money to advance a religious point of view, according to the Associated Press.

State Recusal rate

Local magistrates and some register of deeds officials who issue marriage licenses may opt out of performing marriages and other duties if they have a "sincerely held religious objection," according to North Carolina law. Interestingly, a recusal request applies to all marriages -- not just same-sex -- so an official's decision to opt out means they can't perform any marriages at all for 6 months.

The North Carolina law passed over a gubernatorial veto in June. The recusal rate has not been very high. About 5 percent of the state's 670 magistrates have filed recusal paperwork as of September, according to the state court system.

Plaintiffs' attorney Luke Largess spoke to reporters about the case, saying, "People are entitled to have their religious beliefs about marriage, but the state can't ... pay for it." he said. His clients , the plaintiffs, are two same-sex couples and a mixed-race couple who successfully sued when Forsyth County magistrates refused to marry them in the 1970s.

The lawsuit focuses primarily on the magistrate exception, arguing that it treats gay and lesbian couples differently, in violation of the equal-protection provision in the Constitution. The lawsuit also puts religious belief above the obligations of magistrates to carry out laws they swore to uphold, critics say.

The law "does not represent the values of inclusion on which North Carolina was built," Chris Sgro, executive director of gay-rights group Equality North Carolina, said in a news release regarding the new legal challenge. "It targets same-sex couples."

AG Opposes Law but Will Defend

State Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, opposes the recusal law personally but will defend the state in the lawsuit. He is running for governor and hopes to unseat Governor Pat McCrory, who vetoed the bill before, saying public officials who voluntarily swear oaths to defend the Constitution shouldn't be exempted from some duties.

Meanwhile, The law's chief author, Senate leader Phil Berger, dismissed the legitimacy of the plaintiffs' claims, saying in a statement, "Every North Carolinian seeking a gay marriage license since (the bill) became law has received one, and this is just the latest attempt by the far left's political correctness mob to force their beliefs on everyone else by trampling the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom."

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