Free Exercise and Establishment Clause challenges to NC marriage laws dismissed on procedural grounds

Howard Friedman, Religion Clause

In Thigpen v. Cooper, (NC Ct. App., March 5, 2013), a North Carolina state appellate court, without reaching the merits of the claim, dismissed a suit seeking a declaratory judgment that three of the state’s marriage statutes are unconstitutional. Plaintiff claimed that the statutes violate the Establishment Clause by making clergy agents of the state to perform a marriage ceremony; that  they violate free exercise protections because the state requires individuals entering into marriage to participate in a state-prescribed ceremony; and that it is unconstitutional for the state to prohibit members of the clergy from solemnizing the marriage of same-sex couples. (See prior posting.) The only defendants named were the state of North Carolina and the state Attorney General in his official capacity. The court held that a state is not a “person” for purposes of 42 USC Sec. 1983, the federal statute giving plaintiffs a cause of action to challenge the state laws. It held further that the suit is not properly brought against the attorney general, because he plays no role in enforcing the marriage statutes being challenged.