Sep 21, 1:32 PM EDT

A federal judge has dismissed a challenge to a North Carolina law that says magistrates with religious objections can refuse to marry same-sex couples



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A federal judge has dismissed a challenge to a North Carolina law that says magistrates with religious objections can refuse to marry same-sex couples

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Gay Marriage

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- A federal judge has dismissed a challenge to a North Carolina law that says magistrates with religious objections can refuse to marry same-sex couples.

The judge ruled the three couples who brought the case - two gay and one interracial - lacked legal standing to sue and lacked evidence showing they were harmed directly by the law that took effect in June 2015.

North Carolina and Utah are the only states currently enforcing such religious-recusal laws. About 5 percent of North Carolina's magistrates have filed recusal notices, which prevent them from presiding at all marriages for at least six months. The law also allows some court clerks to decline to issue marriage licenses because of "any sincerely held religious objection."

The plaintiffs argued they could sue because some taxpayer money was being used for travel expenses for other magistrates to come to McDowell County, where all the magistrates had recused themselves. But U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn wrote they didn't point to any specific funds appropriated by the legislature to implement the law's alleged unconstitutional purpose.

The couples who sued also "lack standing by virtue of the fact that their claims are merely generalized grievances with a state law with which they disagree," Cogburn said in the decision released late Tuesday.

The couples' lawyers filed a notice Wednesday saying they'll appeal Tuesday's ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A married lesbian couple who sued and live in McDowell County told reporters last month they're worried whether they can get equal and fair treatment from local magistrates, knowing their recusals.

The law "expressly declares that magistrates' 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 1st Amendment," Luke Largess, a lawyer for the couples, said in a news release.

Cogburn wrote that it's possible someone could suffer real harm because of the law, but he said the plaintiffs provided no evidence that has actually happened.

Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, the chief sponsor of the legislation, said the law actually protects 1st Amendment rights.

"We appreciate the court recognizing the plaintiffs failed to identify even one North Carolinian who was denied the ability to get married under this reasonable law," Berger said in a release.

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