Same-sex marriage returns to spotlight on Jones St.
Posted February 24, 2015
Updated May 31, 2015
Raleigh, N.C. — A proposal to allow magistrates with religious objections to same-sex marriage to opt out is on its way to the state Senate floor after a committee vote Tuesday morning.
Senate Bill 2, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, says that magistrates and assistant registers of deeds who object to same-sex marriage on religious grounds can choose not to perform or issue marriage licenses to any couple, same-sex or otherwise.
Sen. Buck Newton, R-Nash, presented the bill to the Senate Judiciary 2 Committee, saying "religious freedom is paramount" to the nation's history.
Newton vehemently declared his religious objection to same-sex marriage, saying he doesn't believe judges "are smarter than God," but adding, "That is the law."
"We have been thrown a curveball. I think our society has been thrown a curveball by the decision of some judges in federal court," Newton said. "We have to figure out how to deal with these sorts of issues.
"This bill prevents discrimination against magistrates who have sincerely held religious beliefs," he said. "It also prevents discrimination against homosexual couples who seek to be married in the state of North Carolina. This bill provides that they will have marriages under court order."
Under the bill, if all magistrates in a county refuse to perform marriages, the chief District Court judge would be tasked with either performing them or asking the Administrative Office of the Courts to send an outside magistrate to the county.
Marriages would have to be available 10 hours a week, spaced out over three business days.
Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, spoke against the bill.
"If we're all about jobs – and we've all said we're all about jobs – why in the world would we create a second class of people and discourage talent of any stripe from coming to North Carolina?" Van Duyn asked. "That is specifically what this bill will do."
Newton dismissed her comment as "talking points," while Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, responded that valuing jobs more than First Amendment rights is "reprehensible."
"Most folks overwhelmingly agree with one man, one woman is a marriage," Cook said.
Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash, voiced concern that the bill doesn't specify when or how magistrates or register of deeds employees must recuse themselves from performing marriages, opening the possibility of "discrimination in the moment" if a same-sex couple appears at a courthouse but cannot marry because a clerk or magistrate recuses himself or herself on the spot.
"It seems to me, when you're putting a limitation on how and when, you're denying them equal access," said Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, D-Northampton, "They've been given a constitutional right to marry. When we were given the constitutional right to vote, there were measures put in place to make it difficult to vote," such as the poll tax.
"I don't know of any civil right to pull up to the drive-through of the magistrate's office and get an immediate marriage," Newton responded, adding that he believes the bill is "nailed-down constitutional," an assessment with which Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, disagreed.
Despite the weather and travel problems, several members of the public waited to address the committee.
"It's not about religious freedoms. It's a direct attack on the LGBT community," said Equality NC Executive Director Chris Sgro. "Freedom of religion is a basic American value. So are fairness and equality under the law, and that’s what we’re here to address."
The ACLU's Sarah Preston said the First Amendment "is not supposed to be used to allow a public official to impose his or her religious belief on others."
"We don't think it's right for the General Assembly to allow public employees to opt out of duties they have sworn to perform," Preston said. "This bill was conceived to deny gay and lesbian couples their access to the right to marry."
North Carolina Family Policy Council Director John Rustin stood to express his gratitude for the legislation.
"This bill balances in a very appropriate way the necessity for the issuance of marriage licenses in North Carolina ," Rustin said, "with the need to protect the religious liberties of magistrates and public servants.'
The committee passed the measure on a voice vote that appeared to be divided along party lines. The bill will likely reach the Senate floor Wednesday.