Editorial: When government officials pick who to serve, it is wrong
Posted August 15, 2016
A CBC Editorial: Monday, Aug. 15, 2016; Editorial# 8042
The following is the opinion of Capitol Broadcasting Company
People who work for the government – federal, state or local – are expected to serve the public – regardless of who the public is, where they practice their faith or even which restroom they choose to use.
In the courtrooms, judges follow the law in divorce cases, regardless of their personal religious views on marriage.
So why when it comes to state magistrates and registers of deeds, is there a special law allowing them to refuse to do their jobs when certain couples seek to get married?
Passed despite Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto in June 2015 (though the governor doesn’t mention it much), North Carolina law allows every magistrate and register of deeds worker the right to refuse to perform marriages or issue marriage licenses “based upon any sincerely held religious objection.”
Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Max Cogburn heard from lawyers challenging and supporting the law, to determine how the case will proceed. While Cogburn expressed concerns about the law, he said he had questions about those who were challenging the law and whether they had legal standing to bring the case.
Republican legislators passed Senate Bill 2 last year amid the furor over the legalization of gay marriage. The unspoken, but clear intent of the law was to allow government employees to refuse service to gay couples. Senate Bill 2 is an overly broad law that sets a dangerous precedent. It is contrary to our government’s most basic founding principles – the right to practice ones own faith, free from religious dictates imposed by the government. In the case of Senate Bill 2, it is a government official, a magistrate or register of deeds worker, imposing their views on citizens seeking a government service.
Upon a whim, couched as a “sincerely held religious objection” a magistrate could refuse to serve people -- any couple, regardless of gender. Registers of Deeds could refuse a marriage license to a Jewish and Christian couple because of objections to interfaith marriage. This is wrong.
State Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, are the two most powerful members of the General Assembly and strongest backers of this law. Both are lawyers.
Surely they understand the distinction between government employees’ practice of their faith and making it legal for government workers to refuse services to anyone because of their race, age, gender or religious affiliation.
The North Carolina law is, in reality, less about faith but more a not-so-thinly veiled effort of Republican legislative leaders to incite and play to a part of the GOP political base. They score some partisan points passing the law and have an issue that can be ginned up as the election approaches to boost interest and involvement of those most likely to vote their way.
It is shameful that the leaders of the General Assembly are so willing to trample over the Bill of Rights to pander for votes during the campaign season.
With the many variables that go into legal issues, it is difficult and unwise to predict how a court will rule on a specific case. Even if the current challenge to the law is dropped on a technicality over the standing of the plaintiffs, it will be back.
Given the legal track record of other laws this legislature has had challenged in courts– most similarly motivated by partisan zeal over practical need or sincere desire to improve the state – it will be no surprise if, and when, the court rejects this effort to make discrimination legal in North Carolina.