Judge dismisses lawsuit over magistrates right to recuse themselves from performing marriages

The North State Journal—The North State Journal
On September 20

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — A federal judge turned away a challenge to a North Carolina law that allows magistrates to recuse themselves from performing all marriage ceremonies, citing religious beliefs that run contrary to laws allowing same-sex couples to marry. The ruling is a victory for supporters of the law who say it protects the First Amendment religious freedom rights of magistrates and register of deeds employees while complying with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage.The United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina dismissed the lawsuit that was filed by three couples, two gay and one interracial. U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn ruled the couples lacked legal standing as taxpayers to sue and lacked evidence showing they were harmed directly by the law taking effect in June 2015. “We appreciate the court recognizing the plaintiffs failed to identify even one North Carolinian who was denied the ability to get married under this reasonable law which protects fundamental First Amendment rights,” said Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham), the author of the law. The plaintiffs’ lawyers filed a notice Wednesday that they’ll appeal Tuesday’s ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.Since the law was passed in 2015 over the veto of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, about 670 of N.C.’s magistrates have filed recusal notices. Under the law, a recusal applies to performing all marriages, same sex or heterosexual, for six months. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit said the magistrate recusal treats gay and lesbian couples differently, violating the equal-protection provision in the Constitution. They said it also puts religious belief above the magistrates’ responsibilities to fulfill the duties of their office. The office of North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper declined to comment on the case, according to spokeswoman Noelle Talley, but Cooper has previously said publicly he did not support magistrates right to recuse themselves. “Senate Bill 2 expressly declares that magistrates’ religious beliefs are superior to their oath of judicial office,” said attorney Luke Largess from Tin Fulton Walker & Owen, which represented the couples in the case. “The law spends public money to advance those religious beliefs. That is a straightforward violation of the First Amendment.”The nonprofit group the Liberty Counsel, which represented a magistrate as an intervenor in the case, said both the U.S. Constitution and the North Carolina Constitution require accommodation of religious beliefs even for government officials.The judge who dismissed the lawsuit is the same one who overturned N.C.’s ban on same-sex marriage in court in 2012. One couples who are plaintiffs in this lawsuit, Kay Diane Ansley and Catherine “Cathy” McGaughey, were plaintiffs in that suit as well.