Federal Judge Dismisses Challenge to North Carolina Same-Sex Marriage Law

A federal judge has dismissed a challenge to a North Carolina law that allows magistrates to refuse to marry same-sex couples by citing religious beliefs.

According to the AP, a judge in Asheville ruled that a lawsuit brought by three North Carolina couples, two same-sex couples and one interracial couple, lacked evidence showing they were harmed directly by the law.

The law in question allows magistrates, assistant registers of deeds, and deputy registers of deeds to recuse themselves from performing duties related to marriage ceremonies due to “sincerely held religious objection.”  It is commonly referred to as Senate Bill 2.

Senate Bill 2 became law after the North Carolina General Assembly overrode a veto by Governor Pat McCrory in 2015.  North Carolina and Utah are the only two states with such a law.


Gay Fairy Tale Sparks Controversy at Efland-Cheeks Elementary

Matthew Roberts is the parent of two children at Efland-Cheeks Elementary. He says the recent controversy over a book about same-sex marriage took him by surprise.

“I am very surprised at how the opposition has taken off on this. I was not expecting it to get this far out of control,” says Roberts.

king and king

Last week, some parents protested a third grade teacher’s decision to read King & King, a fable aimed at elementary-aged children in which two princes fall in love and get married.

The teacher, Omar Currie, says he chose to read the book to address classroom bullying of a student. The message of the book is to accept people for who they are.

Several parents brought their concerns to the Orange County School board earlier this week, and at least three formal complaints have been filed.

In the wake of the controversy, Currie has said he will leave the school at the end of the school year.

Efland-Cheeks Principal Kiley Brown says as parents filed formal complaints, that triggered school policy which says a parent can object to material being used in the classroom and that administrators will review that material. Brown says the media review team examined the text and determined that King & King was appropriate. Since the initial complaint, two other complaints have been filed, which means that the fairy tale will go through review on two more occasions.

Roberts has one child in Currie’s class, and another who Currie taught last year. He says the teacher’s departure would be a huge loss for the district.

“In my opinion they are losing a tremendous teacher,” says Roberts. “My concern is we may not even be able to convince him to stay and the district will lose a great teacher. He has worked wonders with my two boys.”

More broadly, as a white parent who has adopted and fostered bi-racial children, he’s worried that the school could lose sight of key values he says made his family feel welcome.

“The biggest thing is to emphasize that we see Efland-Cheeks’ diversity, and their acceptance of diversity, as the strongest attribute that school has to offer.”

The teacher, Omar Currie, spoke Thursday with WCHL’s Blake Hodge. Listen to their conversation.


Roberts met with Principal Brown to discuss his concerns and he says he was heartened to learn that most parents aren’t opposed to the content of the book, so much as the timing.

“The most positive thing that came out of this was that the majority of the parents who have contacted her are not opposed to the teaching of the subject of same-sex partners,” says Roberts. “They feel that it could have been presented to them ahead of time so they had an opportunity to prep their children on the subject. And that’s probably legitimate.”

The district will hold a public meeting Friday at 5:30 in the school library to address the questions raised by the fairy tale. Roberts says he’s hoping for a happy ending.

“I’m hoping that we can turn it around and get a positive light. Best case, we won’t lose Mr. Currie, but if we can’t stop that, make sure that we don’t lose other teachers because they feel they’re not being supported.”


Supreme Court Hears Same-Sex Marriage Appeal

Marriage equality was once again the topic of arguments before the US Supreme Court, on Tuesday. This comes after same-sex marriage bans were upheld by the sixth-circuit court of appeals last year.

Before the decision from the sixth circuit, the momentum behind marriage equality was growing as federal courts were striking down same-sex marriage bans – including in the fourth circuit court of appeals which has jurisdiction over North Carolina.

Legal Director of the ACLU of North Carolina Chris Brook says the Supreme Court decided to hear a same-sex marriage case only once there was division among federal courts.

“What the Supreme Court is hearing is the appeal from the sixth-circuit court of appeals,” he says, “upholding marriage bans in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan.”

CBS News Washington DC Correspondent Barry Bagnato says two key questions were put before the nation’s high court.

“Whether the Constitution requires that state’s license same-sex marriages,” he says, “and if not, whether states must recognize legally-licensed marriages from other states.”

Bagnato says the ultimate decision will consider the reach of the constitution.

“It really boils down to whether the 14th amendment gives gay and lesbian couples equal access to a right of marriage that’s already established all over the country,” he says.

“Or whether states have their own authority to determine what marriage is based on the country’s tradition, based on the history, and based on what the citizens in those states believe that marriage should be.”

Brook agrees with Bagnato that the focus will be on Justice Anthony Kennedy.

“[Kennedy] has been the swing vote on legal matters,” Brook says, “relating to the rights and full equality of gays and lesbians.”

Brook adds with the recent decisions from the Supreme Court, including that the justices only chose to hear a case after marriage bans were upheld, could lead to a ruling in favor of marriage equality.

“That would simply further cement marriage equality that has already taken hold here in North Carolina in the last six months,” he says. “And further cement the marriages that have been recognized since Amendment One and the statutory ban on marriage were declared unconstitutional on October 10, here in North Carolina.”

Bagnato says he is not as sold the decision that will be handed down will be as cut and dry.

“It’s very difficult to believe that the court is going to come down with something that is just clear cut,” Bagnato says. “Almost surely there is going to be a split on the court when the final ruling comes down.”

Bagnato says a lot could be swayed in this discussion based on the way in which the Supreme Court writes its opinion.

Brook adds the wording and breadth of the decision will determine its effect on the Tar Heel state.

“If it is an opinion that is specific to those four states – Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, or Michigan – it might have no impact,” Brook says. “If it’s a broader constitutional ruling on saying that the 14th amendment, and its guarantee of equal protection, does not extend to marriage equality, then that could have ramifications here in North Carolina.”

The arguments were put forward over a two-and-a-half hour session in front of the Supreme Court. Now the waiting game is being played until a decision is handed down – which is expected to be in late June.

Regardless of the decision, Bagnato says the attention this has brought from the public to the Supreme Court is very rare.

“I think this compares to cases such as Bush v. Gore – the famous case in the year 2000 that decided the Presidential election,” he says. “And also just 22 months ago this court issued a ruling in another major same-sex marriage case on federal benefits for same-sex couples.

“That case also attracted long lines and significant interest.”


Orange Commissioners Ready to Sue Over Senate Bill 2

The Orange County Board of Commissioners committed this week to opposing a Republican bill in the General Assembly that would allow magistrates and other state employees to opt out of serving same-sex couples.

That opposition may include going to court.

“The only check on this legislature, apparently, is litigation,” said Orange County Commissioner Mark Dorosin.

At Tuesday night’s Board of Commissioners meeting, Dorosin introduced a resolution in response to Senate Bill 2, which passed 32-16 on Feb. 25, and now awaits a vote in the House.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham is behind Senate Bill 2, which he describes as a protection of religious beliefs.

“This legislation will exempt certain state officials from having to fulfill their statutory obligations to either perform [weddings] or provide marriage licenses for same-sex couples,” said Dorosin. “and so, I would like to petition the board this evening to adopt a resolution declaring our opposition to this discriminatory legislation.”

Citing Orange County’s dedication to upholding the civil rights of all residents, as well as recent rulings the U.S. Supreme Court and The U.S. Court of Appeals, Dorosin resolved that the Board of Commissioners urge the General Assembly to reject any legislation that excuses government employees or agents from performing their sworn duties.

He didn’t end there.

“Be it further resolved that if this discriminatory legislation should pass, the Orange County Board of Commissioners directs the county manager and the county attorney to collaborate with other governmental entities and community partners to directly participate in any litigation seeking to challenge such legislation.”

Commissioners Chair Earl McKee that such a petition would normally take between two-to-four weeks to come to a vote. But the timeliness of the issue, said McKee, demanded swift action.

Dorosin’s motion was quickly seconded, and the vote came quickly, too.

“I think it is important to state that we are willing to stick our necks out, and go to court on this,” said Commissioner Penny Rich.

The resolution passed 7-0.

Reached later by WCHL, Dorosin said he hasn’t spoken yet to commissioners from other counties to discuss plans for litigation if the bill passes the House, and Gov. Pat McCrory signs it into law.

But Dorosin, a civil rights lawyer, said that the feeling among a community of civil rights advocates is that it definitely will happen, if necessary.

“I think that there will likely be a coalition of advocates coming together,” said Dorosin.


WCHL’s 2014 Year In Review

The year 2015 is finally upon us – but before saying goodbye to 2014, the WCHL news team took a look back at the year that was in our local community.

In a year dominated by ice storms, high-profile elections, serious debates over policing and public safety and same-sex marriage, and still more scandal at UNC, what were the top news stories that shaped the year 2014 in Chapel Hill? And who were the top newsmakers?

As we do every year, WCHL’s news team compiled a list of the top 10 news stories, and the top 10 newsmakers, here in Orange County. Does your list match ours?

Listen to our 2014 Year In Review special!

Part 1: #10, #9, #8


Part 2: #7, #6, #5 (and the year in sports)


Part 3: Aaron Keck chats with Akiva Fox and Allison Driskill about the top stories of 2014 as viewed on Chapelboro.com.


Part 4: #4, #3, and #2


Part 5: #1



News Story: Rooftop Incident At Hampton Inn
Newsmaker: Rita Balaban

Our #10 news story of the year took place on Tuesday, September 30, when Carrboro police got a call that a man was on the roof of the Hampton Inn on Main Street, threatening to jump. What followed was an 18-hour standoff, during which Chapel Hill and Carrboro police shut down traffic downtown so trained negotiators could talk the man off the roof – which they did, successfully, the following morning.

Our #10 newsmaker is UNC economics professor Rita Balaban, the professor who unmasked three streakers who dashed through her classroom in October. Coincidentally, she was also the professor of the class that police entered in November to arrest the student who’d posted a bomb threat in the Pit on social media.


News Story: UNC’s Response To Ebola Crisis
Newsmaker: Francis Henry

Thousands in West Africa died during the worst outbreak of Ebola in history. Other than a handful of cases, the disease didn’t make it to the U.S., but in Chapel Hill, the work of UNC researchers was pivotal in the fight against the disease overseas.

Meanwhile, the fate of Hillsborough’s beloved, now-dilapidated Colonial Inn was a hot topic all year. Francis Henry, the building’s current owner, petitioned the town for permission to tear the historic building down, but was denied.


News Story: Teacher Pay
Newsmaker: Robert Campbell

North Carolina public school teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation – a fact that sparked an outcry in 2014. That outcry was so loud that state legislators actually responded to it, passing a sizable pay increase, but that didn’t quell the controversy: those raises were minimal at best for experienced teachers.

2014 was a banner year for Reverend Robert Campbell, whose tireless work on behalf of the Rogers Road community came to fruition at year’s end. Orange County municipalities finally came together on a remediation plan to extend water and sewer service to the neighborhood, and a new community center opened in the fall.


News story: Development in Chapel Hill
Newsmaker: Roger Perry

Our #7 news story and our #7 newsmaker go hand in hand: 2014 saw big debates about new developments in Chapel Hill, primarily at Obey Creek and the Ephesus/Fordham district. Developer Roger Perry was at the center of both discussions: his East West Partners is both the lead developer at Obey Creek and the developer behind the first major proposal at Ephesus/Fordham.

Wrapped up with development is the ongoing discussion about affordable housing – which is getting harder and harder to find. Chapel Hill teamed up with DHIC for a major affordable housing project in Ephesus/Fordham, but that’s on hold because clerical errors in DHIC’s funding application led to its rejection.


News story: Ferguson and Police Militarization
Newsmaker: Charles Blackwood

The events in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked several major debates locally: from protests over the non-indictment of the officer who killed Michael Brown (as well as the officer who killed Eric Garner) to a debate about perceived police militarization, sparked by the heavily-armed police response to protestors in Ferguson.

This year’s local elections were mostly a low-key affair, but the sheriff’s race was an exception, as six candidates vied to replace longtime sheriff Lindy Pendergrass. Charles Blackwood emerged victorious, defeating David Caldwell in a summer runoff.


News story: Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety
Newsmaker(s): Mark Kleinschmidt and Lydia Lavelle

Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and UNC were all honored as “Bicycle Friendly” by the League of American Bicyclists, but our community was hit by a series of incidents involving bikers and pedestrians – most notably the tragic death of bicyclist Pamela Lane in October, in a collision with a vehicle on MLK.

It was a busy year all around for Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle, but perhaps most notable was their respective contributions to the fight for same-sex marriage in North Carolina. Kleinschmidt was an attorney on the case that saw the state’s ban struck down; Lavelle and her partner Alicia Stemper were the first same-sex couple to apply for, and receive, a marriage license in Orange County.


News story: Ice Storm
Newsmaker: Rashad McCants

We won’t soon forget the February ice storm that shut down Chapel Hill and Carrboro for days, left motorists stuck on 15/501 and other roads for hours, and forced UNC to call off the Duke/Carolina basketball game scheduled for that evening. (Carolina won the rescheduled game, when it was finally played.)

Former UNC basketball star Rashad McCants made waves in the summer when he appeared on ESPN to declare not only that he’d taken phony classes and had tutors write his papers at UNC, but also that his coaches – including Roy Williams – knew all about it.


News story: Murder of Feng Liu
Newsmaker(s): Thom Tillis and Kay Hagan

Chapel Hill and the UNC community were shocked when pharmacy professor Feng Liu was attacked and killed on July 23, while taking a walk near campus in the middle of the afternoon. Two men were arrested for his murder the following day.

Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Thom Tillis waged a hard-fought (and extremely expensive) battle all year for a seat in the U.S. Senate. State House Speaker Tillis won, riding a Republican wave in spite of the unpopularity of the General Assembly.


News story: Same-Sex Marriage Legalized
Newsmaker: Carol Folt

In May, Mark Chilton unseated incumbent Deborah Brooks in the race for Orange County Register of Deeds, at least partly because he said he’d be willing to defy the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. As it turned out, though, that wouldn’t be necessary: a district court judge struck down that ban in October, and it was Brooks (not yet out of office) who issued Orange County’s first same-sex marriage license.

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt was at the center of every major debate on campus. The academic/athletic scandal was the most prominent, of course, but there were also plenty of major accomplishments as well.


News story: The Wainstein Report
Newsmaker: Mary Willingham

Commissioned in February and delivered in October, Kenneth Wainstein’s 131-page report on academic irregularities at UNC shocked observers who thought they’d heard it all – shedding light on a “scheme” of fraudulent classes that went unchecked for nearly two decades.

Former UNC academic advisor Mary Willingham sparked massive debate when she appeared on CNN in January to blow the whistle on UNC admissions – arguing that a sizable percentage of UNC football and basketball players couldn’t read above an eighth-grade level.


Carrboro Mayor Weighs In On Sixth Circuit

On Thursday, a three-judge panel of the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky) upheld a state-level ban on same-sex marriage, all but guaranteeing that the same-sex marriage issue will reach the Supreme Court within a year.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court elected not to consider the issue because all the circuit courts had thus far been in agreement – but the Sixth Circuit’s decision creates a split. It’s the first time a circuit court has ruled that a ban on same-sex marriage is constitutional; previous courts (including the Fourth, which covers North Carolina) have all ruled that such a ban violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

Because of that earlier ruling, North Carolina now treats its prior ban on same-sex marriage as invalid, and gay and lesbian couples have been able to apply for and receive marriage licenses since October 10. Supreme Court observers say the Court will likely side with the Fourth Circuit and strike down same-sex marriage bans – but if it doesn’t, what does that mean for North Carolina? Or – more importantly – for the same-sex couples whose unions are now recognized?

Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle and her partner, photographer Alicia Stemper, were the first same-sex couple in Orange County to receive a marriage license; they got married in a public ceremony at Town Commons two weeks later. (Legally, at least: Lavelle and Stemper actually held a wedding ceremony ten years ago.) Lavelle says she’s not worried the state will suddenly rescind that recognition, but she says it’s still an open question until the Supreme Court weighs in.

Lavelle spoke with WCHL’s Aaron Keck last week.


In the meantime, the Sixth Circuit’s decision has no immediate impact on North Carolina law – same-sex couples may still apply for and receive marriage licenses, as before. There has been one consequence, though: after Thursday’s ruling, Republicans Thom Tillis and Phil Berger followed through on their pledge to appeal the district court ruling that struck down North Carolina’s same-sex marriage ban last month.

That appeal, however, goes to the Fourth Circuit, which has already ruled that same-sex marriage bans generally violate the Equal Protection Clause.


To The Supremes: Circuit Court Upholds Gay Marriage Ban

On Thursday, a three-judge panel of the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld bans on same-sex marriage in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee – ruling that the bans do not violate the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

That’s the first time a circuit court has ruled that way on a same-sex marriage case; up until Thursday, every other circuit court – including the Fourth, which covers North Carolina – had struck down gay marriage bans on equal protection grounds.

The Sixth Circuit’s ruling creates a division among judges, which means the U.S. Supreme Court is virtually certain to weigh in at its next opportunity, possibly within a year. (The Supreme Court elected not to hear arguments on the issue earlier this year, but only because there wasn’t a split in the circuits at the time.)

But what does the Sixth Circuit’s ruling mean for North Carolina – where same-sex couples have been filing for, and receiving, marriage licenses for weeks?

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt served as an attorney on the case that brought down the same-sex marriage ban here in North Carolina. He’s critical of the ruling – which puts the Sixth Circuit at odds with every other circuit court that’s weighed in – and he says he’s confident that the Supreme Court will overturn it. The Supreme Court currently includes a majority bloc of five justices – Kagan, Sotomayor, Breyer, Ginsburg, and Kennedy – who have consistently ruled in favor of LGBT rights since the mid-1990s in cases like Romer v. Evans, Lawrence v. Texas, and U.S. v. Windsor. (Kagan and Sotomayor, of course, joined the Court more recently.) Supreme Court observers usually identify Anthony Kennedy as a “swing” justice, even a conservative, but he’s actually authored many of the Court’s most pro-LGBT opinions. (And Kleinschmidt says there may be one more step before the Supreme Court: Thursday’s ruling was handed down by a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court, not by the full court itself, so petitioners may first ask for an “en banc” review by the full court before appealing to the Supremes.)

But the ultimate outcome is still uncertain, of course – and it may become even more uncertain should one of those justices retire in the near future. Compounding the matter is the fact that gay and lesbian couples are getting married in states across the country – including North Carolina – precisely because other judges have struck down their states’ same-sex marriage bans as violations of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

If the Supreme Court should actually rule that the bans do not violate the Constitution, what would that mean for North Carolina? Virginia? Idaho? Kleinschmidt says such a ruling is highly unlikely – but should it come, it would create a “constitutional crisis.” (It would also leave thousands of couples in legal limbo.)

Mark Kleinschmidt spoke with WCHL’s Aaron Keck.


Meanwhile in North Carolina, Thom Tillis and Phil Berger have followed through on their pledge to appeal District Court Judge Max Cogburn’s ruling striking down the state’s same-sex marriage ban. They filed that appeal on Thursday, shortly after the Sixth Circuit handed down its ruling. (That appeal, however, goes to the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has already ruled that same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional.)


Carrboro Mayor To Wed At Town Commons

Cupcakes and civil rights come together in Carrboro this Saturday, when Mayor Lydia Lavelle will legally wed her long-time partner Alicia Stemper.

“Alicia and I celebrated our 10 year anniversary, but little did we dream two weeks ago that soon we’d be able to make it absolutely legal,” says Lavelle.

The couple was the first in line for a marriage license at the Orange County Register of Deeds office on the morning of October 13, after a court ruling struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.

However, the two have been together for more than a decade and Lavelle says they’ve considered themselves married for quite some time now.

“We kind of look at it as renewing our vows,” says Lavelle. “We did have what we consider our wedding a little over 10 years ago. But we decided we wanted to share our re-commitment to each other with the Town of Carrboro and do it at Carrboro Town Commons.”

Now they’ll officially tie the knot and celebrate in true Carrboro style.

“All friends and community members who want to support us are welcome,” says Lavelle. “It’s going to be a short but sweet ceremony. We’re going to redo what we did before, then after that we’ll be there to shake hands and give everyone cupcakes for attending.”

The ceremony begins at 5 o’clock on Saturday at Carrboro Town Commons.


NC Magistrates Refusing To Marry Gay Couples?

ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. (AP) — A magistrate in northeastern North Carolina apparently will not face disciplinary action after refusing to marry two men after the end of the state’s gay marriage ban.

The Daily Advance of Elizabeth City reported that Pasquotank County Magistrate Gary Littleton refused Monday to marry Williams Locklear and Randall Jackson.

Littleton cited his religious views that marriage should be between one man and one woman.

Another magistrate, Lee Custis, married the men Tuesday.

Jackson told the newspaper that he and Locklear do not plan to file a formal complaint against Littleton.

His position conflicts with orders issued by the state Administrative Office of the Courts that all judicial personnel accommodate same-sex couples just as they would heterosexual couples after last week’s ruling by a federal judge striking down the prohibition.

Pasquotank isn’t the only county seeing issues: the group Equality NC says it’s looking into reports that magistrates in Alamance County are refusing to marry same-sex couples as well. Alamance Register of Deeds Hugh Webster says he won’t force his employees to act against their beliefs; as in Pasquotank County, he’ll just have another magistrate do it. It’s not clear, though, whether that means couples seeking marriage might be required to leave and come back later.


North Carolina magistrates have been directed to perform civil marriages for same-sex couples or face suspension or dismissal from their state jobs.

North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts general counsel Pamela Weaver Best issued a memo Wednesday to state magistrates saying they would be violating their oaths of office if they refuse to marry gay or lesbian couples.

Best said magistrates who refuse to marry gay couples face suspension or dismissal. They could also face misdemeanor criminal charges for failing to discharge their duties.



Greensboro Judge (Finally) Strikes Down Gay Marriage Ban

In Greensboro on Tuesday, District Court Judge William Osteen finally issued his ruling on North Carolina’s same-sex marriage ban – declaring it unconstitutional, just as Judge Max Cogburn in Asheville did last Friday.

Before Friday, it was actually the Greensboro case that was being watched most closely, and many court observers were surprised that it was Cogburn who ruled first. Cogburn’s ruling effectively legalized same-sex marriage across the state, making Osteen’s case virtually a moot point.

But in his ruling, Osteen also found that State Senator Phil Berger and State House Speaker Thom Tillis do have the authority to intervene to continue trying to defend the state’s ban on gay marriage in court. That decision allows Berger and Tillis to appeal, if they so choose – though any appeal would go to the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has already declared that bans on same-sex marriage violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Either way, Judge Cogburn’s decision on Friday already opened the door to same-sex marriage across the state – and same-sex couples have already been applying for (and receiving) marriage licenses all week.