Local News

Magistrates sue over requirement to marry same-sex couples

Posted February 11, 2015 1:19 p.m. EST

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

— A former Moore County magistrate and a second magistrate who fears losing her job are suing court officials, claiming that being forced to preside over same-sex marriages violates their religious freedoms.

After two federal judges struck down North Carolina's constitutional prohibition against gay marriage last fall, John Smith, director of the state Administrative Office of the Courts, said county magistrates were required to marry any same-sex couple that had a valid marriage license and couldn't opt out of one of their official duties simply because they dislike the concept of gay marriage.

Charlie Smoak, who served as a magistrate in Moore County for 10 years, said he made his position clear to superiors that he couldn't reconcile same-sex marriage with his Christian beliefs and didn't want to handle any such ceremonies, according to the lawsuit. He wasn't appointed for another two-year term at the end of 2014, and because no one gave him a reason for the move, he claims in the suit that it must be connected to his stance on gay marriage.

Smoak and another magistrate listed in the lawsuit as "Jane Doe" – she fears she could lose her job if her position on the issue becomes public – allege that the AOC order violates their rights under North Carolina's constitution to religious liberty, free speech, due process and equal protection.

"Defendants' directive that Plaintiffs must solemnize same-sex relationships as 'marriages' or face suspension, termination, fines and/or criminal prosecution, with no exception or accommodation for Plaintiffs' sincerely held belief, compels Plaintiffs to affirm a belief that is contrary to Plaintiffs' fundamental worldview and to the worldview upon which the state and country were founded," the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Wake County, seeks a court order declaring Smith's order unconstitutional and preventing it from being enforced, as well as an order that Moore County Clerk of Superior Court Susan Hicks reinstate Smoak as a county magistrate.

Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, has filed a bill in the General Assembly that would permit any magistrate or register of deeds employee to recuse himself or herself from performing any marriage for a period of six months for "sincerely held religious objection" without fear of repercussion. The bill hasn't yet been debated by any legislative committee.