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Aug 4, 2016

Federal Court Hearing Set for Legal Challenge Against SB2, North Carolina “Magistrate Recusal” Law

Asheville, N.C. (August 4, 2016) – On August 8 at 9:30 a.m. in Asheville, U.S. District Court Judge Max O. Cogburn, Jr. will hold a hearing in Ansley v. Warren, the federal lawsuit challenging Senate Bill 2. Passed in 2015, Senate Bill 2 is a North Carolina state law that allows magistrates who do not believe in marriage equality to renounce their judicial oath to uphold and evenly apply the United States Constitution. Monday’s hearing will focus on two matters - the state’s motion to dismiss the case, and efforts by the Liberty Counsel - a far right litigation group - to intervene in the case. It will take place just a week after a federal court hearing regarding HB2, the other controversial anti-LGBT law passed by the NC General Assembly since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized marriage equality.

“Senate Bill 2 expressly declares that a magistrate’s 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,” says Luke Largess, a partner at Tin Fulton Walker & Owen and lead counsel in Ansley v. Warren.

Ansley v. Warren challenges Senate Bill 2 under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. The plaintiffs are: Diane Ansley and Cathy McGaughey, a married couple and taxpayers in McDowell County who were plaintiffs in General Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Reisinger, which struck down Amendment One on October 10, 2014; Carol Ann Person and Thomas Person, a married couple and taxpayers in Moore County who were denied the ability to marry in 1976 after two magistrates in Forsyth County claimed that their religious beliefs against interracial marriage would not permit it. (A subsequent lawsuit resulted in a federal judge ordering that the magistrates in Forsyth County comply with Loving v. Virginia); and Kelley Penn and Sonja Goodman, an engaged couple and taxpayers in Swain County who intend to marry this spring. Plaintiffs are represented by Tin Fulton Walker & Owen of Charlotte, and Brazil and Burke of Asheville. Advocacy groups the Campaign for Southern Equality and Equality NC are coordinating the public education campaign accompanying the case.

“Senate Bill 2 undermines the constitutional integrity of our judicial system. It empowers magistrates who abdicate their judicial obligation to protect the constitutional rights of all citizens as established by the Supreme Court and keeps in office those who believe as a matter of faith that gays and lesbians are not full citizens,” says co-lead counsel Jake Sussman from Tin Fulton Walker & Owen.

Senate Bill 2 was passed in spring 2015 as part of a wave of so-called “religious freedom bills” that originated in direct response to marriage for same-sex couples becoming legalized. The law allows magistrates to exempt themselves from performing marriage ceremonies and Register of Deeds employees to exempt themselves from issuing marriage licenses to couples, on the basis of their religious beliefs. At least 32 magistrates across the state have thus far exempted themselves and Register of Deeds employees in 5 counties have done so, according to September 2015 data reported by the Administrative Office of the Courts and N.C. Association of Registers of Deeds. At one point in McDowell County, all magistrates had exempted themselves and public funds were being used to bring in magistrates from a neighboring county for short shifts, during which local couples can be married.

"SB2 has been one of many cynical tactics targeted at the LGBTQ community that we have seen play out all across the country, and our beloved state." said Chris Sgro, Executive Director of Equality NC. "SB2 is a misrepresentation of one of the most fundamental American core values as it opens the door for discrimination against loving same-sex couples behind a veil of religious freedom."

“This law distorts the true meaning of religious freedom. From the day it was proposed, it’s been clear that SB2 is about one thing and one thing only - finding a new way to discriminate against same-sex couples. We will keep standing up to discrimination until LGBT people are equal in every sphere of life,” says Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality.

Equality NC is a statewide organization working to secure equal rights and justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender North Carolinians. For more information, please visit www.equalitync.org

The Campaign for Southern Equality and Equality NC, are coordinating a public education campaign accompanying the case. Learn more at http://www.southernequality.org.

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