Marriage exemption worries registers of deeds

Legislation to allow government employees to opt out of performing marriage duties has focused mostly on the people who perform them on behalf of the government: magistrates.

But the proposal, which was vetoed last week by Gov. Pat McCrory and could be up for an override vote as soon as Wednesday, also applies to officials in a separate county-level office – the registers of deeds. Some registers of deeds, who are elected, are worried that allowing exemptions from performing marriage duties might lead to scheduling nightmares or even lawsuits.

Senate Bill 2 could become law as early as Wednesday if the state House votes to override McCrory’s veto, though it’s unclear whether the bill has enough House support to meet a necessary three-fifths majority to overturn the governor’s decision. The Senate easily voted Monday to override McCrory’s veto.

House Speaker Tim Moore said Tuesday he could delay a vote if he doesn’t believe enough votes are there to make the bill law over the governor’s objection. Moore also is planning to hold a vote in an attempt to override McCrory’s separate veto of a bill that would punish people who take jobs in order to expose unsafe or inhumane conditions or to steal from their employers.

For months, the marriage exemption proposal has drawn intense debate: Would it lead to discrimination against same-sex couples, or is it a necessary step to ensure the religious freedom of government workers?

But those questions aren’t what concerns the N.C. Association of Registers of Deeds. Every couple getting married in the state – whether by a minister or a magistrate – must first get a marriage license from their county’s register of deeds office.

In small, rural counties, those offices have as few as two employees: the elected register of deeds and an appointed deputy. Senate Bill 2 doesn’t allow an elected official to opt out of marriage duties; it applies only to deputies and assistants. For the elected office holders, their oath requires them to make marriage licenses available whenever the office is open.

If all deputies and assistants opted out, “then the register would theoretically have to be there five days a week, eight hours a day, or risk being sued,” said Davis Brinson, Duplin County’s register of deeds and a legislative co-chairman for the association.

If a couple walked in seeking a license and couldn’t get one from the employees present, “I see it as they could possibly have a suit (against the elected register) for failing to perform the duties of his or her office,” Brinson said.

Brinson said the N.C. Association of Registers of Deeds hasn’t taken a formal position on Senate Bill 2, but the group has been advising legislators about the possible problems. So far, the concerns haven’t prompted any changes to the bill.

“We didn’t take a stand on the bill, pro or con,” he said. “We just tried to impress upon them the difficulties.”

While register of deeds offices in urban counties such as Wake and Mecklenburg have dozens of employees, half of North Carolina counties have five or fewer deeds workers. Eight counties have just one person working with the elected register, according to Brinson.

One of those is Tyrrell County – in the northeastern corner and the state’s least populous county. Register of Deeds Gene Reynolds said she’s already polled her sole employee about the possible exemption.

“We’re fine with doing whatever the law asks us to do,” Reynolds said, adding that her office hasn’t yet issued its first same-sex marriage license. “We’re just issuing the licenses, we’re not performing the marriage.”

Senate Bill 2 would require each county to offer weddings for 10 hours a week over three days.

The 10-hour minimum, however, doesn’t apply to register of deeds offices. Brinson said the elected registers would find it nearly impossible to fulfill their duties if all employees took the marriage exemption.

No register of deeds, he said, is in his or her office every day and hour it’s open to serve the public. “You’re going to have sickness, you’re going to have family emergencies that take you out of the office,” he said.

The bill is sponsored by Senate leader Phil Berger. Asked about the register of deed group’s concerns, Berger spokeswoman Shelly Carver said the bill allows them adequate “flexibility” to address their employees’ religious views.

“These types of accommodations have already been reached among magistrates and registers of deeds in a number of counties, and we are confident that common-sense solutions will continue to be found statewide,” she said.

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Twitter: @RaleighReporter

Legislators to watch on SB2

With a close vote in the House on Senate Bill 2, whether the bill becomes law or fails after Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto might come down to just a few legislators. Here’s four who could cast a pivotal swing vote:

Rep. Ken Waddell: The Columbus County legislator was one of only two Democrats who voted for the bill last week. On Friday, he was unsure of his next vote on the matter. “I haven’t promised anything to anybody,” he said, adding that he thinks “it’s not fair to other magistrates from a workload standpoint.”

Rep. Charles Graham: The Lumberton Democrat was the other “yes” vote from his party. He’s likely being lobbied heavily by fellow Democrats who hope he’ll change his mind.

Rep. Paul Tine: The House’s only unaffiliated member was among the 10 who were absent last week. He’s a former Democrat from the Outer Banks who now caucuses with Republicans. He said Friday he opposes the bill and his reasoning echoes Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto statement: “When you are an officer of the court, it’s your duty to uphold the law.”

Rep. William Brisson: The Bladen County Democrat was absent last week, and he’s one of the most conservative legislators in his party, often voting with Republicans. This session, he spoke out against allowing Sunday hunting – another social issue.

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