McCrory vetoes same-sex marriage opt out for magistrates

Within hours of the House giving final approval to a bill that would allow magistrates and other public officials to refuse to perform marriages for religious reasons, Gov. Pat McCrory vetoed the measure.

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Matthew Burns
Laura Leslie
RALEIGH, N.C. — Within hours of the House giving final approval to a bill that would allow magistrates and other public officials to refuse to perform marriages for religious reasons, Gov. Pat McCrory vetoed the measure.
Senate Bill 2 would allow magistrates and employees of county register of deeds offices who object to same-sex marriage to recuse themselves from performing or recording any marriages, gay or straight, for a period of at least six months.

"I recognize that, for many North Carolinians, including myself, opinions on same-sex marriage come from sincerely held religious beliefs that marriage is between a man and a woman. However, we are a nation and a state of laws. Whether it is the president, governor, mayor, a law enforcement officer or magistrate, no public official who voluntarily swears to support and defend the Constitution and to discharge all duties of their office should be exempt from upholding that oath," McCrory said in a statement. Officials said Friday that McCrory vetoed the measure late Thursday.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore said they "respect but disagree with" McCrory's decision, but they stopped short of saying whether they plan to override it.

"Senate Bill 2 is necessary because a bureaucracy failed to make reasonable accommodations and instead forced some magistrates to make an impossible choice between their core religious beliefs and their jobs," Berger and Moore said in a joint statement. "A majority of the people’s elected representatives in both chambers agreed that this bill strikes an appropriate balance between the expansion of rights for some and our constitutionally-protected freedom of religion.”

The Senate has enough votes to override the veto, but it's unclear whether the House could also sustain an override. The final House vote on the bill was 67-43, which barely meets the three-fifths threshold of present members for an override.

Groups on both sides of the debate were quick to respond to the promised veto.

"We urge the General Assembly to keep government services open for all North Carolinians by sustaining the governor’s veto,” Sarah Preston, acting executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina. "Senate Bill 2 is a transparent attempt to deny gay and lesbian couples the freedom to marry, but it is so broadly written that it would also allow court officers to deny services to interracial couples, interfaith couples and others. No couple should have to spend their wedding day rushing from one courthouse to another trying to prove they meet the religious criteria of a magistrate."

"Senate Bill 2 will protect the fundamental American freedom to exercise one's religious beliefs, and it is unacceptable for any Governor who calls himself 'conservative' to veto legislation like SB 2," Jessica Wood, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Values Coalition, said in a statement.

House debate heated for second day

Under the proposal, if all magistrates in a county recuse themselves from performing marriages, then the chief judge must request an outside magistrate or perform the marriages himself or herself. Similarly, if all employees of a register of deeds office recuse themselves, the elected register must issue marriage licenses.

The bill also specifies that civil marriages must be available in every county at least 10 hours a week, spread out over three business days. Currently, there is no minimum time set in state law, so the availability of civil marriage varies widely from one county to the next.

"What this bill does is provide a balancing act," said Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union. "That ensures that marriages are performed in a blind fashion."

Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, noted that he would never be allowed to pick whom he teaches in his classes at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

"We are state employees, and as such, we have an obligation to teach everyone," Luebke said. "It’s a shame this bill is even on the calendar."

Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, said the opt out is needed to conform to employment discrimination law.

"They're entitled to accommodation," Stam said. "We can change the duties. We can change the authority of the magistrate. The individual magistrate does not have such and such a duty."

Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus, noted that North Carolina voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2012 defining marriage in the state as being between one man and one woman, effectively barring same-sex marriage.

Federal judges threw out that amendment last fall after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found a similar law in Virginia to be unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently weighing the legality of such laws nationwide.

"These magistrates, by refusing to do this, are seeking to uphold the constitution as enacted by the people," Pittman said.

Following the federal court ruling last fall, North Carolina's Administrative Office of the Courts issued a directive to magistrates statewide to perform same-sex marriages or face disciplinary action and possible firing.

Berger sponsored the bill after a magistrate in his Rockingham County district resigned rather than preside over a same-sex wedding.

"We understand that everybody doesn't agree on everything all the time, and we don't try to force people to change their beliefs just to comply with what other folks would like to do or have a right to do," Berger said after the bill cleared the House.

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