This week, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that North Carolina’s Magistrate Recusal law will stand.
A federal judge in North Carolina ruled in 2016 that the plaintiffs hadn’t shown ‘direct harm’. That federal judge also ruled that the plaintiffs had not shown the required standing to challenge the 2015 law.
The 4th Circuit upheld the North Carolina federal judge’s 2016 ruling.
Judge Wilkinson wrote in the opening of the ruling that the plaintiffs lacked standing and failed to prove harm done:
“Three couples assert that North Carolina’s Senate Bill 2 (“S.B. 2”), which allows state magistrates to recuse themselves from performing marriages on account of a religious objection, violates the Establishment Clause. But the plaintiffs, all of whom are either married or engaged, do not claim that the state has impeded their right to get married.
Instead, they challenge the religious exemption as taxpayers who object to the alleged spending of public funds in aid of religion.
In light of the Supreme Court’s admonitions on the narrow scope of taxpayer standing, we affirm the judgment of the district court that plaintiffs lack standing to press this claim.”
The law maintains that a magistrate or register of deeds has the right to declare a “sincerely held religious objection” to conduct certain marriage ceremonies.
The law says that magistrates may do so without retaliation such as of removal from office.
There is also language that says if they recuse themselves that they must remain recused for a six month period.
Magistrates who recuse, leave office and come back would have no gap in employment service under the law.
A provision included allows that if all of the officials in a particular county have opted for recusal, the state would make sure a another magistrate from a different county would to conduct the marriages.
Reactions to Recusal Ruling
Republican state Senate leader Phil Berger issued a statement on Wednesday’s ruling.
“Once again, a federal court has rejected the idea that exercising one’s First Amendment religious freedoms somehow infringes on others’ rights,” said Berger.
The magistrate recusal law spawned from Senate Bill 2 in 2015 which was authored by Senator Phil Berger. Former Republican Governor Pat McCrory vetoed the bill, but the General Assembly overrode it.
Plaintiffs in the suit also reacted to the ruling.
“SB2 is unjust and distorts the true meaning of religious freedom. From day one, it’s been clear that SB2 is about one thing – finding a new way to discriminate against same-sex couples and privileging one set of religious beliefs over others,” said the statement from Reverend Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality.
“We will keep standing up to discrimination until LGBTQ North Carolinians are equal in every sphere of life,” Beach-Ferrara wrote.
Beach-Ferrara is an elected official in Buncombe county, yet retains her executive director role at the non-profit, Campaign for Southern Equality.
Beach-Ferrara was sworn in as a county commissioner in Buncombe in December of 2016 and proceeded to call for a resolution that drew from an increasingly partisan and questionable source – the Southern Poverty Law Center.
According to an email American Lens received from the non-profit which bore Beach-Ferrara’s name, the organization plans to appeal.
“Our Legal Team in Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant III is immediately appealing this ruling, seeking a review from the full 5th Circuit,” the email said.
The email included a link soliciting donations.
More about the Recusal Case
There were multiple plaintiffs in the case, which orchestrated and assembled by the Campaign for Southern Equality.
One of the couples was an interracial husband and wife who won a court ruling against North Carolina magistrates who refused to perform their marriage due to religious beliefs back in 1978.
Of the multiple couples involved, two who sued are lesbians.
Two of the plaintiffs are located in McDowell County. At one point all magistrates in that county recused themselves after the state law was passed.
The state, per the law, brought willing magistrates to the county to perform marriage duties.
McDowell County was an outlier, as only a small fraction of magistrates in the state have opted for recusal.
Statewide, 32 North Carolina magistrates have opted out of performing marriages after the law was passed in 2015.
According to the Administrative Office of the Courts, those 32 represented only 4.8% of the 670 magistrates in the state at the time.
Read more about magistrate duties in North Carolina.