Judge dismisses challenge to NC gay-marriage law

Posted September 21, 2016 12:09 p.m. EDT
Updated September 21, 2016 12:47 p.m. EDT

A Wake County magistrate marries a same-sex couple after a federal court ruling overturned North Carolina's constitutional prohibition against gay marriage.

— A federal judge has dismissed a challenge to a North Carolina law that allows magistrates to refuse to marry same-sex couples by citing religious beliefs.

U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn said the two gay and one interracial couple who filed suit over the law lack legal standing as taxpayers to sue and lack evidence showing they were harmed directly by the law, which took effect in June 2015.

"The court ... finds that Plaintiffs lack standing by virtue of the fact that their claims are merely generalized grievances with a state law with which they disagree," Cogburn wrote in his 38-page ruling, which was issued Tuesday. "Plaintiffs have not alleged, let alone submitted affidavits or other evidence, showing any injury in the form of direct harm that might allow the court to find standing on grounds other than taxpayer status."

The plaintiffs' lawyers filed a notice Wednesday that they plan to appeal the ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, who authored the law, said the ruling demonstrates the law is sound.

"We appreciate the court recognizing the plaintiffs failed to identify even one North Carolinian who was denied the ability to get married under this reasonable law, which protects fundamental First Amendment rights," Berger said in a statement.

Still, Cogburn said there is potential someone could suffer real harm because of the law.

"A law that allows a state official to opt out of performing some of the duties of the office for sincerely held religious beliefs, while keeping it a secret that the official opted out, is fraught with potential for harm that could be of constitutional magnitude," the judge wrote.

Lawmakers passed the legislation over Gov. Pat McCrory's veto after federal courts struck down the state's ban on same-sex marriage. The law allows magistrates and staffers in county register of deeds office to opt out of presiding over weddings or issuing marriage licenses for six months if they have a religious objection to same-sex marriage. But it requires that counties make someone else available to issue licenses and handle weddings.

North Carolina is one of only two states with such religious-objection laws that are being enforced. About 5 percent of North Carolina's magistrates have filed recusal notices.