Legal Challenge Filed Against SB2, North Carolina “Magistrate Recusal” Law
On December 9th, six plaintiffs filed a federal lawsuit challenging Senate Bill 2, the state law passed in defiance of federal court orders that struck down Amendment One and declared that marriage is a fundamental right for gay and lesbian citizens. Senate Bill 2 allows magistrates who do not believe in marriage equality to renounce their judicial oath to uphold and evenly apply the United States Constitution.
Senate Bill 2 places personal belief above sworn constitutional duty and unlawfully spends public money to accomplish an expressly religious goal. Ansley v. North Carolina challenges Senate Bill 2 under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. The plaintiffs are represented by Tin Fulton Walker & Owen, a Charlotte-based law firm which led the legal challenge striking down Amendment One, and by Meghann Burke of Asheville-based Brazil & Burke.
Senate Bill 2’s primary purpose is to endorse and establish the primacy of a specific religious belief about same-sex marriage above the constitutional obligations of magistrates. Senate Bill 2 also orders the expenditure of taxpayer funds to bring an oath-abiding magistrate from another county to perform marriages when oath-renouncing magistrates refuse to marry gay and lesbian couples. The law also orders the judicial system to pay retirement contributions to magistrates who quit in the wake of Amendment One being declared unconstitutional rather than marry gay and lesbian citizens. These expenditures of public funds to accomplish a religious purpose violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Senate Bill 2 also sends a clear message to gays and lesbians that they are not full citizens, and denounces the federal courts for finding a fundamental right to marry under the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the U.S. Constitution.
“Senate Bill 2 expressly declares that their religious beliefs are superior to their oath of judicial office to uphold and support the federal constitution. And the law spends public money to advance those religious beliefs. That is a straightforward violation of the First Amendment,” says Luke Largess, a partner at Tin Fulton Walker & Owen and lead counsel in Ansley v. North Carolina.
Adds co-lead counsel Jake Sussman from Tin Fulton Walker & Owen: “Senate Bill 2 undermines the constitutional integrity of our judicial system. 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 plaintiffs in today’s lawsuit are: Diane Ansley and Cathy McGaughey, a married couple and taxpayers in McDowell County who were plaintiffs in General Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Reisinger, which struck down Amendment One on October 10, 2014. Carol Ann Person and Thomas Person, a married couple and taxpayers in Moore County who were denied the ability to marry in 1976 after two magistrates in Forsyth County claimed that their religious beliefs against interracial marriage would not permit it. (A subsequent lawsuit resulted in a federal judge ordering that the magistrates in Forsyth County comply with Loving v. Virginia). Kelley Penn and Sonja Goodman, an engaged couple and taxpayers in Swain County who intend to marry this spring.
Advocacy groups the Campaign for Southern Equality and Equality NC are coordinating the public education campaign accompanying the case. A press conference announcing the case will take place on Wednesday December 9 at 10 a.m. at the Mecklenburg County Government Center, 600 E 4th Street in Charlotte. Attorneys will provide statements and will be available to answer questions about their involvement with the litigation.
Senate Bill 2 was passed in spring 2015 as part of a wave of so-called “religious freedom bills” that originated in direct response to marriage for same-sex couples becoming legalized. The law allows magistrates to exempt themselves from performing marriage ceremonies and Register of Deeds employees to exempt themselves from issuing marriage licenses to couples, on the basis of their religious beliefs.
According to reports from August, at least 32 magistrates across the state have thus far exempted themselves and Register of Deeds employees in 5 counties have done so, according to September 2015 data reported by the Administrative Office of the Courts and N.C. Association of Registers of Deeds. In McDowell County, all magistrates have exempted themselves and public funds are being used to bring in magistrates from a neighboring county for short shifts, during which local couples can be married.
“SB2 is unconstitutional and does not represent the values of inclusion on which North Carolina was built. It targets same-sex couples directly for discrimination and in the process also restricts access to taxpayer-funded government services for all North Carolinians,” says Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality North Carolina.
“This law distorts the true meaning of religious freedom. From the day it was proposed, it was clear that SB2 is about one thing and one thing only – finding a new way to discriminate against same-sex couples. We will keep standing up to discrimination until LGBT people are equal in every sphere of life,” says Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality.
Supporting documents and profiles of the plaintiffs can be found at:
The Campaign for Southern Equality, an Asheville, NC, based group that promotes LGBT rights in the South, is coordinating a public education campaign accompanying the case.