Metro Weekly

Three N.C. couples bring lawsuit challenging magistrate exemptions

Plaintiffs argue Senate Bill 2 is unconstitutional, violating both the First and Fourteenth Amendments

North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh, N.C. (Photo credit: Daderot, via Wikimedia Commons).

Three same-sex North Carolina couples have filed a federal lawsuit challenging Senate Bill 2, which allows officials to exempt themselves from solemnizing or filing paperwork for any marriage to which they personally object.

Passed in June, Senate Bill 2 was crafted as part of a backlash to the overturn of North Carolina’s amendment banning same-sex marriage. The bill was vetoed by Gov. Pat McCrory after its passage, but both chambers of the state legislature overrode him.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs argue that Senate Bill 2 is unconstitutional on two counts. The bill prioritizes the religious beliefs of magistrates or other government officials over the oath they swore to uphold upon taking office.

The bill also sets up a process for alternative arrangements, such as bringing in a magistrate from another county to solemnize marriages at taxpayer expense, and requires the judicial system to pay retirement contributions to magistrates who quit their jobs rather than marry same-sex couples.

As such, the lawyers for the plaintiffs say this violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

“Senate Bill 2 expressly declares that their religious beliefs are superior to their oath of judicial office to uphold and support the federal constitution,” Luke Largess, lead counsel in the case, known as Ansley v. North Carolina, said in a statement. “And the law spend public money to advance those religious beliefs. That is a straightforward violation of the First Amendment.”

Senate Bill 2 also violates Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, by sending a message to same-sex couples that they are not equal under the law and flouting the Supreme Court’s finding that same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry.

“Senate Bill 2 undermines the constitutional integrity of our judicial system,” co-lead counsel Jake Sussman added. “It empowers magistrates who abdicate their judicial obligation to protect the constitutional rights of all citizens as established by the Supreme Court and keeps in office those who believe as a matter of faith that gays and lesbians are not full citizens.”

At least 32 magistrates across North Carolina, and Register of Deeds employees in five counties, have exempted themselves from being forced to participate in same-sex nuptials. In McDowell County, in the western part of the state, all magistrates have declared exemptions, and taxpayer funds are being used to bring in magistrates from surrounding counties for short periods of time, during which county residents can be married.

“SB2 is unconstitutional and does not represent the values of inclusion on which North Carolina was built,” Chris Sgro, the executive director of Equality North Carolina, said in a statement. “It targets same-sex couples directly for discrimination and in the process also restricts access to taxpayer-funded government services for all North Carolinians.”

“This law distorts the true meaning of religious freedom,” added Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, the executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality. “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. We will keep standing up to discrimination until LGBT people are equal in every sphere of life.”

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