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NC magistrates can continue to refuse to marry gay couples after court ruling

Chad Biggs (left) and his fiance, Chris Creech say their wedding vows in front of Wake County magistrate Dexter Williams at the Wake County Courthouse in Raleigh, N.C. Friday, October 10, 2014.
Chad Biggs (left) and his fiance, Chris Creech say their wedding vows in front of Wake County magistrate Dexter Williams at the Wake County Courthouse in Raleigh, N.C. Friday, October 10, 2014.

In a victory for legislative Republicans, a federal appeals court Wednesday opened the door for North Carolina magistrates to refuse to perform same-sex marriages.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on a technicality, dismissing a challenge on the grounds that couples who brought the suit lack the legal standing to do so.

The effect is to keep the 2015 law known as Senate Bill 2, sponsored by Senate GOP leader Phil Berger, in force.

“Once again, a federal court has rejected the idea that exercising one’s First Amendment religious freedoms somehow infringes on others’ rights – which was made clear when the plaintiffs couldn’t find even one North Carolinian who was unable to get married under this law,” Berger said in a statement Wednesday.

The law allows magistrates to refuse to perform marriages based on a “sincerely held religious objection.” Lawmakers passed the bill over the veto of then-Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

The law came in reaction to the 2014 federal court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in North Carolina. And it came at a time when such marriages were becoming the law of the land.

The magistrates case tests the balance between federal law and private religious beliefs. In Wednesday’s decision, Circuit Court Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III sought to frame the issue.

“At the heart of this lawsuit is a debate over the extent to which religious accommodations can coexist with the constitutional right to same-sex marriage,” he wrote.

The Charlotte lawyer who led the fight against the law said Wednesday that further appeals are possible.

“We are reviewing the court’s opinion published this morning and will make a decision about whether to pursue any further appeals, either to the full 4th Circuit or to the Supreme Court,” attorney Luke Largess said in a statement.

After same-sex marriage became legal in North Carolina in 2014, a civil magistrate could be fired for refusing “to discharge any of the duties of his office.”

Berger introduced his bill months later. The General Assembly overrode McCrory’s veto on June 11, 2015, two weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court upheld same-sex marriage around the country.

At the time the lawsuit was filed, roughly 5 percent of North Carolina’s magistrates were refusing to marry same-sex couples for religious reasons. That included every magistrate in McDowell County.

Three couples – Kay Diane Ansley and Catherine McGaughey of McDowell County, Carol Ann and Thomas Roger Person of Moore County and Kelley Penn and Sonja Goodman of Swain County – challenged the law. They said their tax dollars should not go “to aid, promote, and endorse” a state law that creates and allows “a religious exemption from the judicial oath of office and the duty to marry all citizens.”

In the ruling, Wilkinson couldn’t buy that argument.

“The outcome here is in no way a comment on same-sex marriage as a matter of social policy,” he wrote. “The case before us is far more technical – whether plaintiffs, simply by virtue of their status as state taxpayers, have … standing. Based on a century of Supreme Court precedent, we conclude that they have not.”

Wednesday’s ruling was written by Wilkinson, a Ronald Reagan appointee. Barbara Milano Keenan, a Barack Obama appointee, and Stephanie D. Thacker, also an Obama appointee, supported the unanimous decision.

Anne Blythe of The (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill