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Originally published: Dec. 9, 2015, 7 a.m.
Updated: Dec. 9, 2015, 11:25 a.m.

A federal lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s anti-LGBT “magistrate recusal” law on same-gender marriages has been filed in federal court. The challenge seeks to overturn Senate Bill 2, the law passed this year which opponents say violates the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection and Due Process clauses.

Senate Bill 2, passed by Republican state lawmakers earlier this year, allows magistrates who hold religious objections to same-gender marriages to recuse themselves from performing marriage services for such couples.

Attorneys in the case held a press conference this morning announcing the lawsuit, joined by Equality North Carolina and the Campaign for Southern Equality. The two groups will assist in public education efforts around the suit.

“Senate Bill 2 expressly declares that [individual magistrates’] 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,” Luke Largess, a partner at Tin Fulton Walker & Owen and lead counsel in A​nsley v. North Carolina, said in a Wednesday morning media release. The firm is taking the case pro bono.

[Click here to read the suit, Ansley v. North Carolina]

At a press conference on Wednesday morning, Largess told reporters that Senate Bill 2 and the refusal of magistrates to uphold their own oaths is a “contamination of the judicial system.” Judges can’t “pick and choose which laws to enforce,” he said. Doing so “is an open door to chaos.”

Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality North Carolina, told reporters that Senate Bill 2 was “crafted specifically to target LGBT North Carolinians.”

The bill, he said, “restricts access to vital government services to all North Carolinians, by lessening access to marriage for all couple sin some counties,” adding that the legislation “set[s] a dangerous precedent — that civil servants should be selective servants, who could refuse to do certain parts of their jobs.”

The Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara spoke out on the importance of religious freedom. Personal beliefs, she said, are protected, but shouldn’t be used to impose discrimination on citizens by government officials.

“Legislation born out of religious bias is wrong,” Beach-Ferrara said. “The court will find Senate Bill 2 unconstitutional.”

Plaintiffs include interracial couple refused in 1970s

The six plaintiffs in the case include an interracial couple once denied wedding services by magistrates in Forsyth County. The couple, C​arol Ann Person and T​homas Person,​ were denied marriage services in 1976 by two magistrates who believed interracial marriages violated their religious beliefs. A later federal lawsuit ordered the magistrates to comply with the ruling in Loving v. Virginia striking down interracial marriage bans.

Four other plaintiffs include two same-gender couples affected by the “magistrate recusal” law, including: ​Diane Ansley and Cathy McGaughey, ​a married couple and taxpayers in McDowell County who were plaintiffs in G​eneral Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Reisinger, ​which struck down Amendment One on Oct. 10, 2014; and K​elley Penn and S​onja Goodman,​ an engaged couple and taxpayers in Swain County who intend to marry this spring.

Attorneys: Taxpayer money used to discriminate

Attorneys for the couples say the law’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.” The law, they say, 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.” Additionally, they argue that 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,” a release reads. “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.”

One of the complaint’s primary arguments is that magistrates are judicial officials. According to the suit, the state judiciary and its officials are sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution and acknowledge the supremacy of higher courts and constitutional rulings. Senate Bill 2, the complaint says, was passed in defiance of a clear constitutional mandate set forth by the Supreme Court.

Added 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.”

Equality North Carolina and the Campaign for Southern Equality are due to lead public education initiatives surrounding the lawsuit. They say the “magistrate recusal” law was passed during a wave of state-based “religious freedom” bills and argue their intent is to maintain the anti-LGBT religious beliefs of some over the constitutional rights of LGBT citizens.

“SB2 is unconstitutional and does not represent the values of inclusion on which North Carolina was built,” Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality North Carolina, said in a release. “It targets same-sex couples directly for discrimination and in the process also restricts access to taxpayer-funded government services for all North Carolinians.”

The Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, added: “This law distorts the true meaning of religious freedom. From the day it was proposed, it is clear that SB2 is about one thing and one thing only — finding a new way to discriminate against same-sex couples. ​W​e will keep standing up to discrimination until LGBT people are equal in every sphere of life.”

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