The wrong people brought a lawsuit to challenge North Carolina’s law allowing state magistrates to refuse on religious grounds to marry same-sex couple, a federal appeals court ruling shows.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Wednesday refused to strike down the law because it was a group of married taxpayers who challenged the law as an allegedly wrongful spending of public funds in the aid of religion.
The appeals court pointed out that the married couples did not argue the law blocked their ability to marry, only that it infringed their rights as taxpayers and the court said taxpayers have very limited ability to challenge laws they dislike.
The heart of the lawsuit is over the extent to which religious accommodations can coexist with the constitutional right to same-sex marriage, the panel said.
North Carolina voted in 2012 to define marriage as between heterosexual couples. Two years later a federal judge struct down the restrictions and state magistrates were instructed to begin conducting marriage ceremonies to couples with valid marriage licenses or be fired from their posts.
The legislature quickly passed a bill, S.B. 2, that allowed magistrates with religious objections to refuse to conduct same-sex marriages. The law went into effect over the governor’s veto in 2015.
This current civil rights lawsuit was brought by a group of taxpayers who argue SB2 violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution by authorizing the spending of public funds – pay for magistrates – in aid of religion.
The trial judge held the taxpayers lacked standing to sue because they had not been injured. The appeals panel agreed.
“The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that a taxpayer’s interest in ensuring that collected funds are spent in accordance with the Constitution is ‘too generalized and attenuated’ to confer Article III standing,” wrote Judge Harvie Wilkinson.
He pointed out that “not one penny goes to a religious institution or sectarian entity under SB 2.”
“The outcome here is in no way a comment on same-sex marriage as a matter of social policy,” he continued. “The case before us is fare more technical – whether plaintiffs, simply by virtue of their status as state taxpayers, have alleged a personal, particularized injury for the purpose of Article III standing. Based on a century of Supreme Court precedent, we conclude that they have not,” Wilkinson wrote.
He was joined by Judges Barbara Keenan and Stephanie Thacker.
Case: Ansley v. Warren, No. 16-2082