QUEER VOICES

North Carolina Magistrates Can Go Right On Refusing To Perform Gay Marriages

A federal court ruling will let them keep shirking their duty on religious grounds.

A federal appeals court slapped down a challenge to a North Carolina law that allows magistrates to refuse to perform same-sex marriages on religious grounds.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled Wednesday that the plaintiffs didn’t have legal standing to bring the lawsuit, according to the Asheville Citizen-Times.

Some 5 percent of the state’s magistrates were refusing to marry same-sex couples at the time the lawsuit was filed, the Charlotte Observer reported. In one county, all the magistrates declined to do so, forcing the state to pay to bring in an official from another county.

The two gay couples and one interracial couple who brought the suit argued that, as North Carolina residents, they didn’t believe their tax dollars should not go “to aid, promote, and endorse” a state law that creates “a religious exemption from the judicial oath of office and the duty to marry all citizens,” according to the Observer.

The 4th Circuit panel affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the suit. Since two of the couples were already married and the third was engaged, the appeals court held that the law hadn’t hurt their ability to wed, according to WRAL.com.

“The outcome here is in no way a comment on same-sex marriage as a matter of social policy. The case before us is far more technical, whether plaintiffs, simply by virtue of their status as state taxpayers, have alleged a personal, particularized injury for the purposes of standing,” Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote in the 3-0 ruling.

The ruling means that the 2015 law, known as Senate Bill 2, remains in force. That law says magistrates who have religious objections to performing particular marriages, be they same- or opposite-sex, can be excused from that duty with no loss of pay or benefits, according to the Observer.

The bill’s sponsor, state Senate GOP leader Phil Berger, released a statement praising the ruling.

“Once again, a federal court has rejected the idea that exercising one’s First Amendment religious freedoms somehow infringes on others’ rights ― which was made clear when the plaintiffs couldn’t find even one North Carolinian who was unable to get married under this law,” Berger said.

The plaintiffs must now decide whether they should seek a hearing before the full 4th Circuit or take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The couples have been helped in their lawsuit by the Campaign for Southern Equality. The Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the LGBTQ rights group, said the North Carolina law is “unjust and distorts the true meaning of religious freedom.”

“The fundamental question here is when a legislature acts to target a specific community, which is clearly what happened with SB2, there has to be a way to challenge a law that’s based on animus and bias. And SB2 absolutely fits those criteria,” she told The Associated Press.

CONVERSATIONS