Marriage opt-out law has plenty of gray area

A new law that allows magistrates to opt out of performing marriage ceremonies raises concerns for couples that come from many different backgrounds, not just same sex couples.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — 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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