CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Three couples filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging North Carolina's law allowing officials to refuse to perform gay marriages based on their religious beliefs. Their attorney says the state is violating the First Amendment and using taxpayer money to advance a religious point of view, and they want to strike down the law -- one of only two in the country.
The law was pushed by Republicans and passed in June over the veto of GOP Gov. Pat McCrory. Under the law, local magistrates, who can preside over marriages, and some register of deeds officials, who issue licenses, can opt out of performing marriages if they have a "sincerely held religious objection."
Attorney Luke Largess said that even if officials don't support gay marriage, they must uphold the law.
"Senate Bill 2 expressly declares that their 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," Largess said in a statement, CBS affiliate WBTV reported.
"People are entitled to have their religious beliefs about marriage, but the state can't... pay for it," Largess later said at a news conference in Charlotte. The plaintiffs weren't present.
Only North Carolina and Utah provide religious-objection options for court officials. In North Carolina, any official's decision to opt out applies to all marriages - same-sex and heterosexual - for at least six months. About 5 percent of the state's roughly 670 magistrates had filed recusal paperwork as of September, according to the state court system.
Backers of the law say that it protects religious freedom and that government employees should be allowed religious accommodation if marrying same-sex couples runs counter to their beliefs. The law's chief author, Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, considers the law a reasonable solution while complying with court rulings that ordered civil gay marriages be performed.
"Every North Carolinian seeking a gay marriage license since (the bill) became law has received one, and this is just the latest attempt by the far left's political correctness mob to force their beliefs on everyone else by trampling the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom," Berger said in a statement.
The lawsuit focuses primarily on the magistrate exception, arguing that it treats gay and lesbian couples differently, in violation of the equal-protection provision in the Constitution. The lawsuit also puts religious belief above the obligations of magistrates to carry out laws they swore to uphold, critics say.
The law "does not represent the values of inclusion on which North Carolina was built," Chris Sgro, executive director of gay-rights group Equality North Carolina, said in a news release. "It targets same-sex couples."
The legislation was filed by Berger when several magistrates resigned shortly after federal judges in October 2014 struck down North Carolina's 2012 constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage. The state's top court administrator said at the time magistrates who declined to officiate for same-sex couples could be fired or face potential criminal charges.
The plaintiffs include two same-sex couples. One of them, Kay Diane Ansley and Catherine "Cathy" McGaughey, helped overturn in court North Carolina's 2012 constitutional ban. The third couple, a white woman and black man, successfully sued in the mid-1970s when Forsyth County magistrates refused to marry them on religious grounds, according to the lawsuit.
The religious objection law has required officials in McDowell County, about 75 miles northwest of Charlotte, to bring in magistrates from adjoining Rutherford County because several magistrates have opted out of marriages.
Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, said Wednesday that he personally opposed the magistrates' law but told reporters his office would defend the state in the lawsuit. Cooper's office had stopped defending the 2012 amendment when a federal court struck down a similar amendment in Virginia.
Cooper is running for governor next year and seeking to unseat McCrory, who vetoed the bill. McCrory said public officials who voluntarily swear oaths to defend the Constitution shouldn't be exempted from some duties.