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Fourth Circuit Dismisses Lawsuit Against Senate Bill 2

In a major victory for religious liberty, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has rejected an appeal of the lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s Senate Bill 2, otherwise known as the “Magistrates Bill.” This 2015 law allows magistrates and registers of deeds employees to recuse themselves from performing duties related to marriages due to a sincerely held religious belief.

“This is a significant victory for religious freedom,” said NC Family President John L. Rustin. “Senate Bill 2 ensures that the fundamental religious liberties of magistrates and registers of deed’s staff are accommodated and protected, and this ruling acknowledges that the government cannot force public servants to surrender those rights simply because they seek a job that allows them to serve their fellow citizens.”

The appeals court upheld a lower court decision that the plaintiffs in the case did not have legal standing to challenge the law.  In the lower court decision the plaintiffs argued, in part, that Senate Bill 2 violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution because it authorized the “expenditure of government funds in order to facilitate the recusal of magistrates from marriage ceremonies.” They contended that these expenditures represent taxpayer money being used to unconstitutionally “further a religious belief” and that they have standing as taxpayers to sue.

U.S. District Court Judge Max O. Cogburn rejected this argument noting, “the court fails to see a ‘logical link between [Plaintiffs’ taxpayer] status and the…legislative enactment attacked.’” Furthermore, he stated the “expenditures authorized by Senate Bill 2 to enable the NCAOC [NC Administrative Office of the Courts] to enable the recusal process are incidental at best,” and that “Senate Bill 2 ‘did not expressly authorize, direct, or even mention the expenditures.’” Additionally, Cogburn concluded that the plaintiffs “have not alleged, let alone submitted affidavits or other evidence, showing any injury in the form of direct harm that might allow the court to find standing other than taxpayer status.”

The decision handed down on Wednesday concurs with the decision made by the lower court, noting “In light of the Supreme Court’s admonitions on the narrow scope of taxpayer standing, we affirm the judgment of the district court that plaintiffs lack standing to press this claim.” The Court said, “At most, plaintiffs allege some general ‘expenditure of government funds in violation of the Establishment Clause,’ which the Court has repeatedly rejected as inadequate.” The ruling concluded, “The outcome here is in no way a comment on same-sex marriage as a matter of social policy. The case before us is far more technical—whether plaintiffs, simply by virtue of their status as state taxpayers, have alleged a personal, particularized injury for the purposes of Article III standing. Based on a century of Supreme Court precedent, we conclude that they have not.”


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