Former NC magistrate to fight state ruling forcing Christians to perform gay weddings

by Vanessa Garcia Rodriguez, |
In this photograph, former magistrate Charlie Smoak weds a couple under the trees outside a Moore County library. | Courtesy of Charlie Smoak

RALEIGH, N.C. (Christian Examiner) -- Charlie Smoak, a former Moore County magistrate, has filed a lawsuit in a Wake County court to overturn state court officials who ruled magistrates must perform gay weddings -- causing Christians to choose between obeying the law or their religious convictions.

Smoak was advised to retire in December after John W. Smith, director of the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, issued a statement that magistrates could not opt out of performing civil ceremonies after a federal court overturned North Carolina's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage.

Smoak was in his third career, having retired from the U.S. Air Force and the Moore County Sheriff's Department before becoming a Moore County magistrate, a job he loved.

Now 65 years young, with little to lose, he is taking up the title of advocate as he seeks to defend his religious freedoms in court, and pave the way for other Christian magistrates to do the same.

"Somebody needs to do it," Smoak told Christian Examiner.

Smoak said he was encouraged to retire quietly last year when he was up for reappointment.

He had applied to continue as a magistrate but claims someone in the reappointment process did not forward his name. Likely, he said, due to his being publicly outspoken about his religious beliefs regarding same-sex marriage.

Tipped off about being left out, he retired.

"Across the state of North Carolina I had a lot of friends that retired for the same reason," Smoak said, with most choosing to remain silent about the nature of their departures.

"I could have done that and everybody would have been happy, but nobody cares about my religious convictions and that's my concern in all this," he said.

Media outlets first reported Smoak's story when the Orlando-based, non-profit Liberty Counsel filed a lawsuit on his behalf for the right to return to his post with added protections for "sincerely held religious beliefs." Included in the suit is another currently employed magistrate, an unnamed Jane Doe.

Together they are asking the court to invalidate Smith's requirement that magistrates perform same-sex ceremonies even if the officials hold religious beliefs against such action.

Smoak seeks reinstatement and an exemption from having to perform gay weddings -- for him and other magistrates with religious objections.

His lawsuit has brought criticism from gay activists and homosexual rights advocates.

But the typically light-hearted Smoak, called "the marrying magistrate" because of the high number of weddings he has performed over the years, responded seriously about suggestions he simply find alternate employment.

"For a lot of people a magistrate's wedding is not much, but I felt it was my responsibility to make this the best day possible for these people," he said, then described how he often performed the civil ceremonies outside, under trees.

"I didn't preach at these weddings and all, but I took them seriously," Smoak noted before continuing with the levity of realized joy. "When you love your job you do not want to just quit and find another. I really enjoyed my job as a magistrate because over the years I became a people person and I really enjoy working with people."

Smoak insists his lawsuit is about upholding religious freedoms, not winning money or inhibiting gay rights, as some have speculated.

"I am not wanting to rock the boat. I'm not trying to stir a big stink, but it's gotten to the point where everybody has their rights except Christians," Smoak said.

To demonstrate his point Smoak noted a conversation regarding his case with a lesbian friend. Ultimately she resolved to "strongly, but respectably disagree" with his views.

"I have lesbian friends and homosexual friends. It's not me against LGBT it's just that I have some religious convictions," Smoak said.

Just as homosexuals and gay rights activists express their convictions, Smoak claims he simply seeks to do the same for himself and for those still employed as magistrates who do not feel they can express theirs.

Asked again if his life's next chapter holds the title of advocate, a pensive Smoak answered with great emotion.

"I guess if we've come to that point and time, somebody needs to do it," he answered. With a deep breath and a moment of pause he continued , "Yep. It's me. It's come to that point and time.

"Like I said, nobody was concerned about my religious convictions, but if you've got a conviction you'll stand on that conviction."

State Sen. Phil Berger (R) has introduced a bill in the General Assembly that would allow magistrates or employees with the register of deeds to opt out of performing same-sex ceremonies. Such officials could recuse themselves because of "sincerely held religious objection" without fear of repercussion.

But any such recusal must last at least six months, and the officials could not be involved in traditional marriages either.