Suit challenges NC law that lets magistrates refuse to perform same-sex marriages

The federal judge who overturned North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage will hear a new lawsuit challenging the law that allows magistrates to refuse to perform such marriages.

U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn will hear the suit filed Wednesday in federal court in Asheville by the team of Charlotte attorneys who sued to overturn the gay marriage ban.

The new suit challenges a law passed this year that allows magistrates to recuse themselves from performing marriages if they have a “sincerely held religious objection.” Senate Bill 2 became law after the General Assembly overrode Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto.

The bill’s sponsor, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, defended the law Wednesday.

“Every North Carolinian seeking a gay marriage license since Senate Bill 2 became law has received one,” Berger said in a statement. “This is just the latest attempt by the far left’s political correctness mob to force their beliefs on everyone else by trampling the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom.”

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for McCrory’s leading Democratic opponent, Attorney General Roy Cooper, said Cooper will defend the law in court, even though he personally opposes it.

“Our office will do its duty under the law to defend the state just as it has in more than a dozen other recent cases challenging laws passed by the General Assembly,” said Cooper spokeswoman Noelle Talley.

In the suit, the Charlotte lawyers claim the religious-objection law that allows magistrates and other officials to excuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses or performing weddings is unconstitutional. The lawyers represent three couples in North Carolina who are plaintiffs in the case.

The 20-page federal complaint accuses legislative leaders of passing a law that supports a specific religious view, defies court rulings that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marriage, and enables magistrates and other officials to ignore their oaths to uphold the law.

Attorneys say 32 magistrates have recused themselves under the law, including all the magistrates in McDowell County.

The new complaint accuses legislative leaders of passing a law that declares the spiritual beliefs of magistrates “are superior to their oath of judicial office to uphold and support the federal Constitution,” attorney Luke Largess said. “And the law spends public money to advance their religious beliefs. That is a straightforward violation of the First Amendment.”

At a morning news conference, Largess said, “You can’t just pick and choose which parts of the law you’re going to enforce.”

Joining Largess were other gay rights supporters, including Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality North Carolina.

He said the magistrates law “sets a dangerous precedent that civil service can be selective service.”

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill