Advocates filed a lawsuit on behalf of six plaintiffs last week challenging a North Carolina law they claim unconstitutionally protects state magistrates who refuse to issue marriage licenses because of religious objections to marriage equality.
The plaintiffs argue the law violates both the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the 14th Amendment, and affects any union a magistrate may claim a religious objection to, such as LGBTQ, interracial, or interfaith pairings.
Republican lawmakers in North Carolina passed SB 2 in the spring of 2015 as part of a wave of so-called religious freedom bills that originated in direct response to the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriages.
Specifically, SB 2 separately grants assistant and deputy registers of deeds the right to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses, for six-month intervals, based upon “any sincerely held religious belief.” And taxpayer funds must cover the costs associated with bringing a magistrate from another county to perform marriages.
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The judicial system also must pay retirement contributions to magistrates who quit in the wake of a court ruling unconstitutional Amendment 1—the statewide referendum that had banned same-sex marriage—rather than marry same-sex couples.
The attorneys challenging SB 2 allege these public fund expenditures are in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause as they accomplish a religious purpose.
“Senate Bill 2 undermines the constitutional integrity of our judicial system,” co-lead counsel Jake Sussman from Tin Fulton Walker & Owen said in a statement following the filing of the lawsuit. “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.”
From August 2015, at least 32 magistrates across the state have exempted themselves from participating in same-sex marriages, according to allegations in the lawsuit. Register of Deeds employees in five counties have refused to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, according to advocates.
All magistrates in McDowell County have exempted themselves and public funds are being used to bring in magistrates from a neighboring county for short shifts, during which local couples can be married.
“This law distorts the true meaning of religious freedom,” the Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, said in a statement. “From the day it was proposed, it is clear that SB 2 is about one thing and one thing only—finding a new way to discriminate against same-sex couples.”
Attorneys for the State of North Carolina have not yet responded to the allegations in the complaint.