Six North Carolina residents are challenging a law that allows magistrates to opt out performing civil marriages if it goes against their religious beliefs.
The plaintiffs, who filed the complaint Wednesday and include both LGBT and interracial couples, argue the magistrates law uses taxpayer dollars for religious reasons and therefore violates the First Amendment.
Charlotte-based lawyer Luke Largess, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, said when all of the magistrates in McDowell County opted out of performing marriages, the state paid to bring another magistrate in from a neighboring town.
“That’s spending public money to advance a religious purpose,” he said.
The N.C. General Assembly passed the magistrates bill on May 28, claiming religious freedom. And the N.C. House of Representatives joined the N.C. Senate June 11 in overriding Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto, making it law.
Fifteen days later, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in all 50 states.
Two of the plaintiffs in Wednesday’s complaint are Kay Diane Ansley and Catherine “Cathy” McGaughey of McDowell County, who were married Oct. 15, 2014 — four days after a federal judge in Asheville struck down North Carolina’s ban on gay marriage.
Other plaintiffs include Carol Ann Person and Thomas Roger Person of Moore County, who are both legally blind and an interracial couple. Two magistrates refused to marry the Persons in 1976 .
“One of the magistrates read to them from the Old Testament to justify his refusal to marry the Persons, and the other recited the ‘Our Father’ prayer to justify his refusal,” the complaint stated. “Both magistrates declared that interracial marriage was against God’s will and the Bible.”
A federal district court judge found the magistrates violated the Persons’ 14th Amendment rights in 1978.
Kelley Penn and Sonja Goodman of Swain County, who are engaged, are the final two plaintiffs.
Largess said there has never been a religious exemption for a judge who takes an oath of office.
“Your option is to resign as a judge and take on another calling in life,” he said. “But not to say that my religion is superior to the constitution, which is what this law says.”
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