Lawsuit challenges North Carolina’s religious exemption for anti-marriage equality public officials

Earlier today, three North Carolina couples filed a federal lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s religious exemption for public officials who object to same-sex marriages.

Following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v Hodges, the State of North Carolina passed a law exempting public officials with religious objections from the marriage process when the couple is of the same sex. The law was passed after the state legislature overrode a veto from Governor Pat McCrory.

Gay marriage via Shutterstock

Gay marriage via Shutterstock

Under the law, local magistrates, who sometimes preside over marriages, and some register of deeds officials, who issue marriage licenses, can opt out of their responsibilities as public officials if they have a “sincerely held religious objection” to the marriage in question. If such an objection is raised, one of their co-workers who does not have such an objection must fill in for them.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit argue that this law places the religious beliefs of public officials above the public functions they are charged with executing, a violation of Church/State separation. As Chris Sgro of Equality North Carolina added in a statement, the law “targets same-sex couples directly for discrimination and in the process also restricts access to taxpayer-funded government services for all North Carolinians.”


It’s worth noting that this kind of exemption is exactly what Kentucky Governor-elect Matt Bevin plans to enact “right away” via executive order when he takes office in January. Kentucky’s current governor, Steve Beshear, had fought a lawsuit from Kim Davis requesting a similar exemption, in part because it would set a highly problematic precedent in which public officials can pick and choose which laws they will uphold — despite having taken an oath to execute all of the laws the government charges them with executing. North Carolina’s law, and Bevin’s planned executive order, allow agents of the state to put the priorities of their faith above the priorities of their government.

The First Amendment is pretty clear in saying that they shouldn’t be allowed to do so.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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