Politics & Government

Charlotte attorneys challenge law that allows magistrates to avoid performing same-sex marriages

A team of Charlotte lawyers whose lawsuit helped lead to the demise of North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage is now challenging a new state law that allows local officials to opt out of sworn duties on religious grounds.

Attorneys Jake Sussman, Luke Largess and John Gresham are part of the legal team that filed a lawsuit against the state Wednesday. They claim the religious-objection law that allows magistrates and other officials to excuse themselves from issuing same-sex marriage licenses or performing gay 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 gay couples have a constitutional right to marriage, and of enabling magistrates and other officials to ignore their oaths to uphold the law.

“Senate Bill 2 undermines the constitutional integrity of our judicial system,” Sussman said. “It empowers magistrates who abdicate their judicial obligation to protect the constitutional rights of all citizens as established by the Supreme Court and keeps in office those who believe as a matter of faith that gays and lesbians are not full citizens.”

The law, passed by the General Assembly over Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto in June, was a major counteroffensive in the fight for traditional marriage. “Amendment One,” the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, was overturned by the courts in October 2014.

U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn signed the order in a case filed by Sussman, Largess and Gresham that attacked the ban on religious and due-process grounds.

Their 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,” Largess said. “And the law spends public money to advance their religious beliefs. That is a straightforward violation of the First Amendment.”

The law allows magistrates with religious objections to stop performing marriages of all types for at least six months. That’s happened in McDowell County, home to a female couple serving as plaintiffs in the complaint. The state is paying to move magistrates around in area counties to fill the void in McDowell, where all the magistrates have recused themselves, the suit says.

The magistrates’ law doesn’t necessarily block gay North Carolinians from getting married. Yet lawsuit supporters say the statute treats them differently than other taxpaying citizens.

“They call these ‘religious freedom’ laws,” said Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality North Carolina, an advocacy group for marriage rights and other LGBT issues. “But this is discrimination – plain and simple.”

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS

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