Marriage opt-out law has plenty of gray area

Posted June 12, 2015

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— A new law that allows magistrates to refuse to perform marriages is widely viewed as part of the debate over same sex marriage, but couples who may not fit the mold of typical newlyweds for other reasons say they're concerned as well.

"Personally, I don't think it's fair," said Rebecca Cannon, who was married at the Wake County Courthouse on Friday. "I think anybody should have a right to get married and to be married."

Cannon and Jason Geisler have a 7-year-old son, Noah, but only recently decided to wed after being together for 10 years.

Federal courts struck down North Carolina's ban on same sex marriage in October of 2014. Shortly afterward, a number of magistrates voiced objections on religious grounds to marrying same sex couples. Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the N.C. Values Coalition, says 16 magistrates across the state quit or otherwise lost their jobs because of those objections following a sternly-worded directive from North Carolina's Administrative Office of the Courts.

In Senate Bill 2, lawmakers allowed magistrates to opt out of performing all weddings, and officials in county Register of Deeds offices to opt out of signing off on marriage licenses. Officials could not pick and choose, but would have to opt out of participation in all marriages for at least six months at a time.

"This bill did not create a new right to religious freedom," Fitzgerald said. "It's just enforcing the existing right to religious freedom that the state veered off track from."

Gov. Pat McCrory vetoed Senate Bill 2 because he said public officials have sworn an oath to uphold the laws of the state and execute their job functions.

Lawmakers, who completed their override of the governor's veto this week, putting the law in place as of Thursday, said it protects government workers from being forced to do something that runs contrary to their religious faith. And they point out that the law requires each county to guarantee that there will be at least 10 hours every week during which all couples can get married.

Geisler, whose son was excited to watch his parents tie the knot, says that if he wants others to respect his beliefs, he needs to respect theirs.

"There's not really too much I could do to change their view or their individual beliefs, so it's just something you kind of have to roll with," he said.

Backers of the bill say that it's unlikely magistrates would make use of the law for reasons other than an objection to performing same sex marriages.

But critics of the law say magistrates could opt out of performing ceremonies for any number of reasons, and could decide to opt out at the last minute when faced with a couple to whom they had an objection.

A "magistrate who doesn't want to marry an interfaith couple, or an interracial couple could raise a religious objection and decide that they don't want to perform civil marriages anymore," said Sarah Preston, executive director of the North Carolina branch of the ACLU. Other examples of religious objections could involve couples where one or both parties is divorced or where the pair have been living out of wedlock.

"I think all those arguments are red herrings. This bill was to allow magistrates and registers of deeds to exercise their religious beliefs about marriage," Fitzgerald said. She added, "Creating a relationship that by its very nature and design is not right is something that people of religious faith ought to have the right to object to and to decline."

Preston argued all couples could end up being inconvenienced by those objections, particularly in smaller counties were only a handful of workers are available for marriage-related functions.

"You might just have fewer people available to perform civil marriages or sign your marriage license for you," Preston said. "In that way it might inconvenience a lot of couples because the amount of time when they can get this government service will be limited."

Groups opposed to the law say they are exploring whether or not to sue in order to overturn it.


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  • Rob Creekmore Jun 14, 2015
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    I cannot wait until a practicing Muslim denies to serve a Christian couple due to his/her religious beliefs. That will be rich.

  • Todd Whitmer Jun 13, 2015
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    You've clearly never voted in any other part of the country than the south.

  • Mike C Jun 13, 2015
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    If people are so set on separation of church and state, then why are 'state' elections held in churches?

  • Todd Whitmer Jun 13, 2015
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    Not to mention a blatant disregard for the separation of church and state...

  • Todd Whitmer Jun 13, 2015
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    This won't stand. Now tell me, who has an agenda????

    All I want todo is live my life with person I love. If you want to choose to practice a religion that's your business. But when your religious beliefs get in the way of my living a happy life, it isn't religious freedom that is being protected, it's your bigotry.

  • Paul Maxwell Jun 13, 2015
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    "She added, "Creating a relationship that by its very nature and design is not right is something that people of religious faith ought to have the right to object to and to decline." "

    Arrogant. Ignorant. Wrong. The nimrods in the GA think that they found an end-run around a Constitutional right. This is not about 'religious freedom'. It's about bigotry, legal discrimination, and has opened a Pandora's box of unforeseen consequences. I can't wait.

  • Mike C Jun 13, 2015
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    This is just the minority trying to force the majority to do their bidding whether they like it or not!

  • Tammy Rush Jun 13, 2015
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    It's funny/odd how conservatives equate marriage equality with shoving it down the throat... Is that purposefully ironic?

  • Ty Rammstein Jun 12, 2015
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  • Russell Chapman Jun 12, 2015
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    Of course there are "Gray areas". That's what happens when you, the Legislators in the case, operate without much thought. This was thrown together rather quickly after the Courts overturned Amendment 1. Oh, and having a hateful law that 1) allows government officials to discriminate and 2) not fulfil all aspects of their job. This law is shameful and I am rather embarrassed to be a citizen of NC.