A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit by three couples who challenged North Carolina’s law that allows magistrates to refuse to marry same-sex couples by citing religious beliefs and opting out of performing all marriages.
U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn ruled that the couples lacked legal standing as taxpayers to sue and lacked evidence showing they were harmed directly by the law that took effect in June 2015.
The judge, though, did not rule out the potential for other challenges of the law by people who could show harm.
Attorneys for the couples filed notice on Wednesday of their plans to appeal the Cogburn ruling that was entered Tuesday in Asheville.
Roughly 5 percent of North Carolina’s magistrates are refusing to marry same-sex couples for religious reasons, including every magistrate in McDowell County. In such cases, a magistrate is brought in from another county for gay marriages.
In a hearing on the case in August, Cogburn said he was bothered that when magistrates who claim a religious exception fill out a form saying so, court administrators appear to require that it be kept secret.
Gay couples who come before a local judge for an eviction or small claim have a right to know if that judge won’t marry gays, he said.
“When litigants come to you, they have to know they are getting a fair shot,” Cogburn said.
The challengers, two gay couples and one interracial couple, argued that no taxpayer money should go to a judge who refuses to uphold the law. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2015 that same-sex marriages are legal throughout the country.
N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Eden and a lawyer who authored the law, applauded Cogburn’s ruling.
“We appreciate the court recognizing the plaintiffs failed to identify even one North Carolinian who was denied the ability to get married under this reasonable law which protects fundamental First Amendment rights,” Berger said in a statement.