Advocates Appeal Ruling on Challenge to North Carolina Anti-Marriage Equality Law

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Advocates Appeal Ruling on Challenge to North Carolina Anti-Marriage Equality Law

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Equality advocates appealed a ruling that threw out a legal challenge to SB 2, a Republican-supported North Carolina law that allows magistrates and other civil servants to refuse to participate in same-sex marriages.

Attorneys for three couples challenging a North Carolina law that permits magistrates with religious objections to refuse to marry same-sex couples immediately appealed a ruling dismissing their case on the grounds that their clients lacked standing to challenge the measure.

SB 2 allows magistrates to exempt themselves from performing marriage ceremonies and allows Register of Deeds employees to exempt themselves from issuing marriage licenses to couples based on religious objections. The law, passed by the GOP-held North Carolina legislature in 2015 as part of a wave of “religious freedom” laws, is one of two like it in the country. The other is in Utah.

The plaintiffs, two same-sex couples and one interracial couple, challenged SB 2, arguing the measure was unconstitutional because state funds in the form of pensions and salaries were going to state workers who were denying benefits on the basis of their religion. But last week a federal district court judge ruled that the couples could not show direct evidence that they had been harmed since the law took effect in June. They therefore lacked standing to challenge the measure, the court ruled.

Since SB 2 became law, at least 32 magistrates across the state, along with Register of Deeds employees in five counties, have exempted themselves from performing same-sex marriages. All magistrates in McDowell County, where one of the plaintiff couples lives, for a time exempted themselves from performing same-sex marriage while public funds were being used to bring in magistrates from a neighboring county to perform the marriages the other magistrates declined.

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District Court Judge Max Cogburn ruled the plaintiffs needed to be able to identify specific funds appropriated by the North Carolina legislature to support those objecting civil servants. It is possible someone could suffer real harm because of the law, but in this case, the plaintiffs provided no evidence that has actually happened, Cogburn said.

The next stop for the case is the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. A hearing date has not yet been scheduled.