RALEIGH, N.C. — An appeals court in North Carolina has upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by two Christian judges who resigned their posts two years ago after being informed via state memos that they would be required to officiate same-sex “weddings” or face possible punishment.
The North Carolina Court of Appeals did not rule on the merits of the requirement, but only agreed with the lower court that the two judges did not have standing in the case because the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), which issued the memo, did not have power to fire them.
“Because defendants lacked the actual authority to sanction, suspend, or remove plaintiffs, the allegations in plaintiffs’ complaint, when viewed as true and considered in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, fail to demonstrate an injury that defendants were capable of inflicting upon plaintiffs, and by extension fails to show that such an injury could be redressed,” Judge Ann Marie Calabria wrote for the three-judge panel.
The situation began in 2014 when U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn struck down the state’s constitutional amendment recognizing marriage as being only between a man and a woman. The AOC soon issued a memo advising that “[m]agistrates should begin immediately conducting marriages of all couples presenting a marriage license issued by the Register of Deeds.”
“A failure to do so would be a violation of the U.S. Constitution under the federal ruling, and would constitute a violation of the oath and a failure to perform a duty of the office,” wrote AOC Director John Smith. “For these reasons, all magistrates must treat same-sex marriages for which a marriage license has been issued by the Register of Deeds the same way that marriages between a man and a woman are scheduled and conducted.”
He said that “refusal is grounds for suspension or removal from office, as well as potential criminal charges.”
Judge Thomas Holland of Graham County, and Gilbert Breedlove of Swain County, both who identify as Baptists, sought accommodations for their religious beliefs, but were denied. Therefore, instead of violate the biblical command not to be a partaker in other men’s sins (1 Timothy 5:22), they resigned.
Holland and Breedlove also filed suit in an effort to obtain protection and regain their jobs. They noted that that the North Carolina Constitution declares that “all persons have a natural and inalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences.”
“No person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws; nor shall any person be subjected to discrimination by the State because of race, color, religion, or national origin,” it states.
Last September, Wake County Superior Court Judge George Collins, Jr. granted the AOC’s motion to dismiss the case, “because the defendants have no power to nominate, appoint, remove, or otherwise control magistrates, nor do the defendants have the power to institute criminal prosecutions against magistrates for failure to perform their duties.”
On Sept. 20, the North Carolina Court of Appeals agreed.
“If defendants could not remove plaintiffs, then defendants could not have harmed plaintiffs by such a removal, and therefore plaintiffs lacked standing to bring an action for this purported harm,” Calabria wrote. “We therefore hold that the trial court did not err in granting defendants’ motion to dismiss for lack of standing.”
Judges John Tyson and Douglas McCullough concurred.
As previously reported, last year, lawmakers in North Carolina passed a bill allowing magistrates to opt out of officiating same-sex ceremonies under the condition that they discontinue offering marriage services of any kind.
“Every magistrate has the right to recuse from performing all lawful marriages … based upon any sincerely held religious objection,” it read in part. “Such recusal shall be upon notice to the chief district court judge and is in effect for at least six months from the time delivered to the chief district court judge.”
The law had been challenged in court by two homosexuals and their partners, as well as an interracial couple, but Coburn—who struck down the state’s marriage law in the first place—ruled on Sept. 20 (the same date as the Holland and Breedlove ruling) that the complainants lacked standing. He only ruled against the specific plaintiffs while opining that “there exists the potential that a citizen could suffer real or emotional harm” from the law.