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What Happened When Magistrates Refused To Marry Interracial Couple In 1970s

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You may not know the names of Thomas and Carol Ann Person. But in the late 1970s, they had a significant case in North Carolina. Attorney Ervin Brown remembers when they came to his office at the Legal Aid Society in Winston-Salem.

"They had been to the magistrate’s office to get married, and they had been turned down for a license," he says.

The magistrate made clear why he denied them.

"He got out his Bible and started reading to them about how interracial marriages should not be permitted," he continues.

The couple sued after a second magistrate refused to marry them for the same reason, and won. A federal judge ruled the magistrates violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

WFAE’s Michael Tomsic spoke to Brown on Thursday, after North Carolina lawmakers overrode Governor Pat McCrory's veto of a bill concerning magistrates. With the override, now magistrates can opt out of performing same-sex marriages based on religious objections. (They'd opt out of performing all marriages.)

Brown gave more detail about the 1970s case, including the fact that the Persons were legally blind.  

"They could not distinguish colors, black and white," Brown says. "Unless somebody had told them, of course, they would not have known that one was black and one was white. And they were obviously people in love, one with the other, and eventually they got married and now still live in eastern North Carolina."

In North Carolina, a federal judge ruled in October that same-sex marriage is protected under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Tomsic asked Brown how the current situation for magistrates is different from the one he was involved in back in the '70s.

"I'm not sure really that there is any significant difference or any difference at all as far as equal protection goes," Brown says. "They really are the same thing. These laws, like the one the Tea Party legislature has passed here and was vetoed by Governor McCrory and now has been overridden, are based on what I think is just a sham, saying that individuals who have religious objections to marrying a same-sex couple don't have to do it, can't be held liable if they refuse."

"They've got to have some excuse, and that's the one they've chosen," he says. "But it's a pretty clear, transparent sham in my opinion."