NC senators push religious exemption to give some officials a pass on performing gay weddings

Some North Carolina lawmakers are convinced that court officials should be exempt from having to perform same-sex weddings or issue marriage licenses to gays because of the workers' religious beliefs.

A Senate committee on Tuesday endorsed a measure creating an exemption from carrying out duties related to marrying gay couples based on a "sincerely held religious objection." The divided voice vote by the Republican-controlled judiciary panel could send the proposal to a full Senate debate Wednesday.

The bill was filed after federal judges overturned the state's constitutional ban on gay-marriage in October and a chief courts administrator wrote soon after that all magistrates were duty-bound to marry gay couples.

North Carolina is the latest state considering whether to respond to such rulings by allowing government officials to avoid presiding at civil gay marriages.

"I think our society's been thrown a curveball by a decision of some judges in the federal courts," said Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, chief proponent before the committee for the bill originally filed by Senate leader Phil Berger. "So now it falls to us to figure out how we're going to accommodate people's sincere religious belief and religious freedom and still comply with court orders and make sure that the law is followed."

Bill opponents, however, called the legislation a backhanded way to deny full access for gays and lesbians now legally permitted to marry. It wouldn't have been filed unless gay marriage had been legalized in North Carolina, said Sarah Preston with the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"We certainly all agree that religious freedom is one of our most valued liberties, but it is not supposed to be used as an excuse to allow government officials to deny services to couples," Preston told the committee.

The bill allows magistrates to refuse to preside at same-sex marriages based on their religious views. It also allows assistant and deputy registers of deeds to not issue marriage licenses. Those who opt out of performing same-sex weddings couldn't carry out duties for traditional marriages, either. The official could rescind the objection in writing.

If clerks or magistrates willing to marry couples are unavailable, the elected register of deeds and the chief District Court judge for each county still would be obligated to carry out the duties for all.

Any magistrate who had been fired or resigned — presumably for religious objections — since early October also won't be penalized if they seek a vacant magistrate position or lose benefits if they are rehired. Newton, who opposes gay marriage, said six or eight magistrates out of roughly 675 in the state may be affected.

Democrats on the committee who oppose the bill said it could inconvenience all couples who want to marry because access to marriage licenses may be limited, particularly in counties with only a few magistrates.

Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, D-Northampton called it a denial of equal access. Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, suggested in his questions that the "religious objection" in the bill is so broad it could allow someone to refuse to marry two people of different races.

Berger, R-Rockingham, dismissed that argument later Tuesday, calling the bill a "narrowly tailored accommodation for people's First Amendment religious rights." Berger got involved after a magistrate in his home county decided to resign instead of agreeing to marry gays.

Chris Sgro, executive director of the gay rights group Equality North Carolina, spoke against the bill in committee, while North Carolina Family Policy Council leader John Rustin endorsed the legislation.

Bills have been filed in at least seven states seeking exemptions for magistrates, clerks or justices of the peace from participating in gay marriage duties or discouraging them from doing so, said Adam Talbot, a spokesman for the pro-gay marriage Human Rights Campaign. In Florida, some clerks' offices scrapped all marriage ceremonies rather than perform same-sex unions.