A former magistrate filed a lawsuit last Monday aiming to allow North Carolina magistrates to recuse themselves from overseeing same-sex marriages based on religious convictions.
The lawsuit is similar to a bill introduced Jan. 28 by N.C. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger that would grant similar religious exemptions.
The plaintiffs in the court case, Charles Smoak — a former magistrate — and an unnamed second plaintiff believe requiring them to perform same-sex marriages is a violation of freedom of conscience, speech, due process and equal protection.
Berger’s bill states that “every magistrate has the right to recuse from performing lawful marriages under this chapter based upon any sincerely held religious objection.”
Michael Crowell, a professor in the UNC School of Government, said one issue with allowing magistrates to have exemptions is that in rural counties with few magistrates, it would be problematic if all of them objected.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are asking the court to rule that requiring magistrates to solemnize same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. They also hope to reinstate Smoak, who claims he was not reappointed because of his public statements against performing same-sex marriages.
Crowell said there is little precedent for this case, but he was surprised that so few court cases have addressed this issue — despite public officials raising objections as states have legalized same-sex marriage.
Crowell said the closest comparison would be police officers who asked to be exempted from arresting protesters at abortion clinics. The courts determined the officers could be fired or disciplined for not performing their duties, he said.
“The courts have said that the very nature of law enforcement or firefighting or other protective services requires public confidence that officers will protect everyone the same — even if the officers hold different beliefs,” Crowell said.