North Carolina Now Lets Officials Opt Out Of Marrying Gay People On 'Religious Grounds'

News & Politics

North Carolina court officials can opt out of presiding over same-sex marriages for religious objections, state lawmakers decided on Wednesday, overriding a veto of the bill by Governor Pat McCrory.

McCrory had vetoed the bill two weeks ago, saying: “No public official who voluntarily swears to support and defend the constitution and to discharge all duties of their office should be exempt from upholding that oath.”

But the Republican-led state senate then overrode McCrory’s veto 32-16, and the House followed suit with just over three-fifths voting to make the measure law.

Magistrates and registers of deeds can now decide not to administer same-sex marriages if they feel a “sincerely held religious objection”.

The law requires that court officials who have such an objection stop performing marriage duties for all couples, same-sex or heterosexual, for at least six months. An elected official, either the chief district court judge or county register of deeds, would perform the marriage if necessary.

Although there was no debate held, Democratic leader Larry Hall said the governor, a Republican, had correctly vetoed the bill, “because it would sanction state employees being released from their sworn duties to the citizens of the state of North Carolina”.

“We should not be in the business of sanctioning state employees lying to the government and to the citizens of the state, taking a sacred oath and then willy nilly at their convenience deciding they will not uphold their oath to the citizens of North Carolina,” Hall said.

Democratic representative Cecil Brockman told reporters after the vote that the law “doesn’t make sense”.

“Anybody who feels any kind of passion for their neighbor or community would stand up and say something,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense. We live in 2015.”

Several representatives who had originally voted against the bill were absent from the vote on Thursday.

Advocates for LGBT rights quickly denounced the new law, with Sarah Preston, the executive director of the state’s ACLU operation, saying “this is a sad day for North Carolina that history will not judge kindly”.

“Just eight months after our state extended the freedom to marry to same-sex couples, extremist lawmakers have passed discrimination into law,” she said in a statement. “This shameful backlash against equality will make it harder for all couples in our state to marry.”

Proponents of the bill have said public officials are not beholden to perform all the functions of their office depending on their personal religious beliefs. “Just because someone takes a job with the government does not mean they give up their first amendment rights,” senate leader Phil Berger said during last week’s debate.

Opponents of the bill argued that it would cause unfair delays for gay people who want to marry, and that it could even foment bias against them. Religious exemptions put “local officials at risk to be challenged for discrimination”, said Democratic senator Angela Bryant on Monday. “We are setting them to play out those prejudices within this loophole.”

The Republican lawmakers who wrote the bill reject that argument, and say no one will be discriminated by allowing magistrates to recuse themselves from marriages they deem unacceptable. “If a same-sex couple wants to get married in North Carolina, they will have the opportunity to get married in North Carolina,” Berger said.

Similarly, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, said that the law is “unconstitutional” and will face legal challenges.

In a statement, she said the law “is discriminatory and treats gay and lesbian couples as second class citizens”.

A federal court struck down North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage in 2012, and the bill was introduced last October after several magistrates resigned in protest of legal same-sex marriage.

McCory’s departure from his state party’s position said in a written statement that “for many North Carolinians, including myself, opinions on same-sex marriage come from sincerely held religious beliefs that marriage is between a man and a woman.” But, he added, “we are a nation and a state of laws”.

Only Utah has a similar exemption for court officials, signed into law with the support of the governor, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Same-sex marriage is legal in 36 states and the District of Columbia, and its legality in Alabama is being disputed by the state courts, who seek to ban it, and federal courts, which have affirmed marriage equality. The US supreme court is expected to make a new ruling on same-sex marriage, possibly mandating its legality around the country, in late June or early July.

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