Same-sex marriage debated as magistrates law passes Senate

Posted February 25, 2015

— Senators debated the rights of same-sex couples Wednesday morning as they voted in favor of a bill that would allow certain court officials to opt out of participating in marriages.

Although the measure would require magistrates and clerks in the county register of deeds offices to opt out of participating in all weddings, it is clearly a reaction to federal court rulings that struck down North Carolina's ban on same-sex marriage.

The vote was 32-16 after a roughly two-hour debate. The bill now heads to the state House.

Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, said the bill balances the interest of justice versus the First Amendment religious rights of magistrates.

"This legislation prohibits any couples of whatever orientation they may have from being treated differently," Newton said during the floor debate. Magistrates, he said, "will either perform marriages or not."

Although Newton was the chief spokesman for the measure, it was sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, one of the legislature's top leaders.

Berger, R-Rockingham, waited until the end of Wednesday's floor debate before weighing in.

"We're not saying the First Amendment outweighs any other rights that exist," Berger said, referring to the protections of free exercise of religion. "What we're saying is there should be an accommodation when there is a conflict between rights."

Opponents of the bill said the state should not be in the business of allowing officers of the court to opt of their duties based on religious objections.

"We do not have the right to pick and choose whom we serve," Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, said of the bill.

If the bill were taken to its logical extremes, Stein said, clerks at the Department of Revenue could refuse to process tax returns of same-sex couples or ticket takers at the state-owned zoo could refuse to process family tickets for same-sex couples.

"We're putting ourselves in league with Alabama as the states that refuse to respect the Constitution," he said.

Later in the debate, Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, pointed out that Alabama had three auto manufacturers, something to which North Carolina aspires.

Recent history weighs on debate

Three years ago, North Carolina voters passed a state constitutional amendment banning marriages by same-sex couples. But last year, federal courts struck down that ban. In the wake of those rulings, a handful of magistrates resigned their offices rather than face potential sanctions over not performing marriages.

Newton argued those magistrates were forced to resign because of sincerely held beliefs.

"Common sense would allow these folks to be able to recuse themselves," he said.

Opponents of the bill, including Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, said the Senate should be focused on job creation and economic issues rather than social issues. And they likened the measure to anti-miscegenation laws that prevented people of different races from getting married during the 20th Century.

"It is an articulately written bill that masks an inarticulate policy of separate but equal," Woodard said.

Newton said such references to past racial discrimination were not the right way to think about same-sex marriage issues and said he was "disgusted" by those conflating the two.

"You're born into your race. I don't know about sexual orientation," he said.

That view squares with ministers who are part of the North Carolina Values Coalition, a group that pushed for the marriage amendment in 2012.

"Magistrates should not have to choose between exercising their Christian values and keeping their jobs, and we will not allow this issue to be demagogued by insinuating that there are magistrates who would, on religious grounds, oppose interracial marriage," Bishop Patrick Wooden of Upper Room Church of God in Christ in Raleigh said in a statement. "To my knowledge, there are no Biblical teachings against interracial marriage."

The final vote did not break down strictly along party lines. Two Republicans, Sen. John Alexander, R-Wake, and Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Mecklenburg, voted against the bill.

"Chief magistrates already have the ability to handle this issue," Tarte argued, despite outlining his own religious objections to same sex marriages.

Sen. Ben Clark, D-Hoke, and Sen. Joel Ford, D-Mecklenburg, voted for the bill.

"I know discrimination when I see it. This isn't it," Clark said of the bill during a senatorial statement explaining his vote.

Outside the General Assembly, though, opponents of the bill such as Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, say the bill "treats gay and lesbian couples as second-class citizens."

"Once again, our legislature has demonstrated a willful disregard for the basic concept of treating all North Carolinians fairly. Like Amendment One, I believe this bill will not stand the test of time because it is rooted in animus," Beach-Ferrara said,

Opponents of the bill point out that North Carolina is a big state with people on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate. Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, said that reaction following last year's federal court rulings illustrated that divide.

"While they were celebrating in Buncombe County, I didn't know that the courthouse would open the next day in several counties," Hise said.


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  • James Henderson Apr 2, 2015
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    "You're born into your race. I don't know about sexual orientation," he said.

    So Buck has somehow suppressed his own homosexual tendencies and forced himself to be straight?

  • James Henderson Apr 2, 2015
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    View quoted thread

    Tornado smashes Arkansas homes, destroys church - CNN.com
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  • Charlie Watkins Mar 2, 2015
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    The issue of same-sex marriage is over.
    The issue of abortion is over.
    The issue of amnesty is over.

    The GOP needs to look forward. The Democrats won these three issues and the GOP lost bigtime.

    Move on to something else.

  • Alan Baker Mar 1, 2015
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    View quoted thread

    The framers were well aware "people" like yourself would happily vote for discrimination and ignorance if given the chance. As such, they made it clear in the Constitution that such votes would not stand. This one won't either.

  • Jason Conaway Mar 1, 2015
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    This shouldnt even be an issue. We the people voted, one man one woman!

  • Jason Conaway Mar 1, 2015
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    View quoted thread


  • Uragoner Too Mar 1, 2015
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    More fires, more tornadoes,more floods, more earthquakes, more attacks on our cities and interests overseas, meteors, killer snowstorms..... the warnings are there, but the blind lead the blind

  • Melissa Noderer Feb 27, 2015
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    The magistrates are conducting a civil union between two people, and not sanctifying a marriage in the eyes of God. What a slippery slope this legislation could create. What will prevent a grocery store clerk from processing my groceries because he or she does not want to touch the bacon, ham and pork chops due to seriously held religious beliefs? No this is not far-fetched. If this bill makes it to the Governor's desk, it should be vetoed.

  • Melvin Denis Feb 27, 2015
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    If government workers can't support out laws then they need to be fired and replaced wit people who support the law. There are lots of qualified people ready to take their jobs.

  • Charles Ratliff Feb 27, 2015
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    Now that gay people are getting married in NC it has ruined my marriage. My wife and I were out the other day and she saw a gay couple holding hands.." why don't you hold MY hand", "Why don't you dress nice like they do!" "Why can't you cook like they can?" "Why is their home better decorated at Christmas", "Why do they go on vacation to Paris and all you do is take me to Myrtle Beach?". And while she was stammering on, I noticed just how nice the afternoon light fell on that one guys, hair and brought out his amazing cheekbones......