Raleigh, N.C. — 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.