‘They Said Gay People Were An Abomination’: Marriage Advocates Sue NC Over Magistrate Opt-Out Law

Dec 10, 2015

Three North Carolina couples have filed a suit challenging a state law that allows court officials to opt out of same-sex weddings for religious reasons, arguing the legislation illegally uses taxpayer money to favor a religious point of view and is intended to discriminate against a group.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, argues that Republican state lawmakers who approved the bill earlier this year made public comments that showed a bias against same-sex couples. At the time, supporters of the bill said it was intended to balance court officials’ freedom of religion rights with same-sex couples’ rights granted by federal courts.

"They essentially said that gay people were an abomination," said Chris Sgro, Director of the advocacy group Equality North Carolina. "I thought that that was just an unbelievable thing for us to have to hear in 2015 on the floor of the North Carolina General Assembly."

The suit argues the law violates the First Amendment by using tax payer money to favor a religious belief over other beliefs. It also argues the law violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, saying lawmakers deliberately discriminated against gay couples.

North Carolina and Utah are the only two states that have allowed court officials to opt out of marriage duties citing religious objections. In North Carolina, magistrates and registers of deeds must recuse themselves from officiating at any marriage for at least six months.

At least 32 of the state’s 670 magistrates have opted out.

State lawmakers, led by Republican Senate Leader Phil Berger, drafted the law early this year after a handful of magistrates resigned following federal courts determining that same-sex weddings were legal across the country. The bill became law in June when lawmakers overrode a veto by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

In a statement Wednesday, Berger said the law was a reasonable way to protect the First Amendment rights of court officials, and that every gay couple seeking a license has obtained one since the law was passed.

“This is just the latest attempt by the far left’s political correctness mob to force their beliefs on everyone else,” Berger said.

The plaintiffs in the case include a same-sex couple from McDowell County, where all court officials have recused themselves from weddings, requiring officials from neighboring Rutherford County to travel to perform marriage duties.

The plaintiffs also include an interracial opposite-sex couple that, according to the suit, successfully sued in the mid-1970s after two Forsyth County magistrate judges refused to marry them on religious grounds.