A federal judge has delayed a lawsuit filed by Charlotte churches and couples against the state’s same-sex bans, ruling that the issue could be decided by a case further along in the courts.
But the impact of this week’s order by U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis Howell already is unclear, given other developments in the fast-changing legal fight over gay marriage rights.
In April, a group of Charlotte-area houses of worship and same-sex couples sued, accusing the state of violating their constitutional right to practice religion. The churches support marriage equality, but say they are blocked from performing marriage ceremonies by state law and a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2012.
The suit’s authors hoped that by filing the country’s first faith-based challenge to gay marriage bans, their case could move quickly enough through the courts to influence the final legal rulings.
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Howell ruled otherwise. Tuesday, he put the Charlotte case on hold until the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals made a final decision on an older case that could settle the marriage issue in the Carolinas and beyond.
On Wednesday, however, the 4th Circuit acted. A three-judge panel refused to delay its July 28 decision that found Virginia’s marriage ban unconstitutional. Unless the Supreme Court steps in, same-sex marriage becomes legal in Virginia on Tuesday.
If U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts grants a stay, as called for by supporters of Virginia’s ban, a ruling in the case by the full Supreme Court would not be expected until next year.
Given recent developments, Charlotte attorney Luke Largess said supporters of the Charlotte marriage suit will ask Howell to suspend his order and let the case proceed. If same-sex marriage becomes legal in Virginia, Largess said his group will ask that the 4th Circuit’s ruling to be applied to North Carolina, too.
The 4th Circuit covers the Carolinas, Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland. Legal experts have said for months that an appeals court ruling would eventually apply to all five states.
This week, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina filed documents in its two marriage cases in Greensboro, asking a federal judge to use the Virginia ruling to find North Carolina’s marriage bans unconstitutional.
“The ruling from the Fourth Circuit makes plain that North Carolina’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples is discriminatory and unconstitutional,” ACLU-NC Legal Director Chris Brook said in a statement.
He called on the federal courts to strike down the bans “without delay.”