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Senate Bill Would Allow Magistrates To 'Opt-Out' Of Performing Gay Marriages

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Ludovic Bertron
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A small portion of a magistrate’s job in North Carolina is performing civil marriage ceremonies. A bill that’s already passed the Senate would allow state magistrates and register of deeds employees to “opt out” of this part of their job if it contradicts their religious beliefs. This is all part of a debate over same-sex marriage. The legislation could have other effects if it becomes law.

Several magistrates in North Carolina resigned last fall. They didn’t want to marry gay couples, so they quit, citing religious beliefs. That’s why Senate leader Phil Berger introduced this bill.

It would let magistrates recuse themselves from performing civil marriages, if they have a "sincerely held religious objection.”

Essentially this bill ensures that all couples that seek to be married in a civil ceremony are going to be treated exactly the same way.

Senator Buck Newton, a Republican co-sponsor, presented the bill to a House Judiciary committee two weeks ago.

Newton says the bill is not discriminatory, because magistrates who would object to one marriage would have to recuse themselves from performing any marriage, gay or straight.

"This bill essentially lays out the framework in which we’re going to balance the religious freedom for employees of the court system versus the requirement that we serve all of our citizens," Newton says.

That framework really concerns Maggie Garrett. She’s the legislative director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Garrett says similar legislation has been proposed in eight other states.     

But, she says, the language in North Carolina’s bill is the only one that doesn’t directly refer to gay marriage. Instead, it refers to religious objections that can apply to any marriage. 

"What we’re talking about here is government employees funded by tax payer dollars, denying people their marriages and their ceremonies," says Garrett.

She adds that it could expand discrimination to other areas of public service.

"If they can justify giving a blanket exemption to these government officials, the next step could be applying it to other government officials."

Beth Littrell, an attorney for Lambda Legal, says that another example is a police officer who could refuse to assist a gay couple. 

"Or, the EMT worker who pulls up at a traffic accident and realizes they’ve got a gay sticker on the back and they don’t want to touch people because they’re gay..and they can call a supervisor while that person’s condition worsens," Littrell adds.
 
In other words, Pandora’s box would be opened. 
 
"I think about clerks who might want to deny interfaith couples from getting married because they think that that is wrong. I mean you can go down the list and it could really be anything that someone has an objection to," says
Maggie Garrett.

Republican Senator Jeff Tarte of Cornelius doesn’t support gay marriage.
 
"Trying to accommodate somebody’s religious beliefs is an outstanding thing to do to the extent you can."

Yet, he was one of only two Republicans to vote against the bill.

"Writing legislation, or agreeing on legislation that violates the constitution really gives me heartburn."

Tarte brings up the Fourteenth Amendment, the one that says individuals must be protected equally under the law. It also guarantees citizens due process.  

"It’s probably not a good idea to set a precedent where public officials can pick and choose which laws they can enforce," he adds.

But while this is a controversial issue now, Tarte says it won’t be in the near future.

"You know the twenty-somethings just don’t think this is an issue anymore. To a large extent they are wondering why we’re even debating this in the manner we continue to deal with it. So I think often times it’s the older generation, it’s my generation that continues to struggle with it the most."
 
The bill now awaits debate in a House Judiciary Committee.