Magistrate recusal law lands in federal court

marriage amendmentNearly six months and 32 recalcitrant magistrates later, three couples have sued the state in federal court, challenging the law that allows magistrates to refuse to perform marriages based upon a self-professed religious objection to same-sex marriage.

In the lawsuit, filed in Asheville and assigned to U.S. District Judge Max O. Cogburn, Jr., the couples allege that the law, passed in the spring as Senate Bill 2, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by authorizing the expenditure of public funds to accomplish a religious purpose, and the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, by singling out gay and lesbian couples and denying them the fundamental right and dignity of marriage as recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in June in Obergefell v. Hodges. 

Cogburn also presided over the challenge to Amendment One filed by clergy in the spring of 2014, General Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Reisinger, and was the first federal judge in North Carolina to strike down the state ban after the ruling in Obergefell.

The plaintiffs in today’s lawsuit are Diane Ansley and Cathy McGaughey, a married couple and taxpayers in McDowell County who were also plaintiffs in the General Synod case; Carol Ann Person and Thomas Person, a married couple and taxpayers in Moore County denied the ability to marry in 1976 after two magistrates in Forsyth County claimed religious beliefs against interracial marriage; and Kelley Penn and Sonja Goodman, an engaged couple and taxpayers in Swain County who intend to marry this spring.

According to the Administrative Office of the Courts, 32 magistrates have opted out of performing marriages based upon religious objections as of October, including all four magistrates in McDowell County.

“Senate Bill 2 is unconstitutional and does not represent the values of inclusion on which North Carolina was built,”   Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality North Carolina, said in a statement.

“It targets same-sex couples directly for discrimination and in the process also restricts access to taxpayer-funded government services for all North Carolinians.”

Read the full complaint here.

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