Following federal rulings finding state bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, the AOC sent out directives to North Carolina magistrates and other court officials informing them that a magistrate could not refuse to participate in a same-sex marriage for any reason, even if doing so violated a magistrate’s sincerely held religious beliefs. The directives further stated that if a magistrate refused to perform a same-sex marriage, he or she could face discipline, removal from office, and even criminal prosecution.
As a result of these directives, and months before the passage of a state law allowing judicial staff to opt out of performing same-sex marriages, Gilbert Breedlove and Thomas Holland, magistrates in Swain and Graham Counties respectively, resigned.
“Same-sex marriage is the law of the land, and we are not questioning that in this lawsuit,” CLF Staff Attorney Elliot Engstrom said. “Rather, our focus is on whether a government agency can exert this kind of authority over state personnel, and then completely shirk any sort of responsibility for the result.”
Engstrom joins attorney Ellis Boyle, who has been prosecuting the plaintiffs’ case since the initial filing in April 2015.
“My clients and I are both very pleased that CLF has been so willing to jump in and help,” Boyle said. “Ultimately, our goal is to obtain a ruling from our State’s appellate courts confirming that religious liberties enjoy substantial protections under the North Carolina Constitution. State employees should not have to check their constitutional liberties at the door every day when they go to work. This is a struggle to protect every citizen’s religious freedoms.”
Breedlove differs substantially from the recent situation in Kentucky involving Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis. There, a government official refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses due to her religious beliefs.
“Our clients were not trying to restrict any person’s lawful access to marriage licenses or ceremonies,” Engstrom said. “They simply sought a reasonable accommodation to have some other statutorily-authorized officiant participate in all marriage ceremonies because they could not participate in a same-sex ceremony for religious reasons. The AOC refused to offer such an accommodation and instead told our clients that failure to obey the directives could result in criminal prosecution.”
Religious liberty case heads to Court of Appeals