Federal Lawsuit Filed Over NC Magistrate Bill
Attorneys in Charlotte filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against a state law that allows magistrates to avoid marrying same-sex couples. The law passed six months ago despite Governor Pat McCrory's veto.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this summer that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. So the lawsuit boils down to this: can a government official who took an oath to uphold the constitution get a religious exemption from part of it?
Charlotte attorney Jake Sussman says the answer is no.
"It's unlike private citizens and their businesses," he says. "This is not like those cases that you've heard about wedding cakes and photographers. This is a judicial official who is paid by the state, is an employee, has to take an oath of office, and Senate Bill 2 allows them to opt out of that."
Republican State Senate Leader Phil Berger sponsored the bill. It allows magistrates who don't want to marry same-sex couples to opt out of performing all marriages.
Berger declined our interview request. He's called the law a reasonable accommodation, and he says every North Carolinian seeking a gay marriage since it passed has received one.
None of the people suing have been turned away because of the law. So Sussman, the attorney, says the argument is partly about taxpayer money.
"North Carolina has to pay to fill in the gaps if you will when magistrates say I'm not going to serve these particular citizens," he says, "which requires the state to then effectively bus in or somehow bring in a magistrate from another county to do that job."
That's happened in McDowell County in western North Carolina, where all four magistrates opted out. Statewide, 32 have recused themselves, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Sussman says getting around that results taxpayer spending to promote a religious view, which he says is a violation.
His firm, Tin Fulton Walker & Owen, was also involved in the case that overturned North Carolina's same-sex marriage ban, called Amendment One.
State Attorney General Roy Cooper says although he personally opposes the magistrate law, his office will do its duty to defend it.
Here's the full legal complaint.