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Local public officials split on refusing same-sex marriages

Mecklenburg County Register of Deeds David Granberry with a new amended marriage license form.
Mecklenburg County Register of Deeds David Granberry with a new amended marriage license form. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Registers of deeds in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties say none of their employees plan to stop issuing marriage licenses to gay couples after state legislators made it legal to opt out of duties related to same-sex marriage.

But opinions are mixed among local magistrates, some of whom said they will still perform gay weddings. Others refused to discuss the issue.

David Granberry, Mecklenburg County’s register of deeds, said no one in his office plans to stop issuing licenses to married couples – although an employee who left his office months before the law passed told him she would not give licenses to gays.

“She was a good employee; she would be eligible to come back if she wanted to,” Granberry said. “She’s gone to seminary-type schools.”

The law – which went into effect Thursday after House Republicans quashed Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto of the marriage bill – lets magistrates cite religious beliefs as grounds for refusing to perform all marriages, and assistant and deputy registers of deeds from issuing any marriage licenses.

While the bill does not specify a type of marriage eligible for recusals, much of the debate has been about same-sex marriages.

Recusals can occur at any time, but must be in effect for a period of six months. And magistrates who resigned over the issue can return to work with their benefits restored as if they had never left their jobs.

The measure comes just as the Supreme Court is expected to rule on same-sex marriage later this month. Legal observers say a favorable decision by federal judges could throw North Carolina’s new law into disarray, while opponents of the bill claim some of its provisions are discriminatory.

“It’s just clearly a sham,” said Ervin Brown, a Winston-Salem attorney who defended an interracial couple, Thomas and Carol Ann Person, after a magistrate refused to marry them in the 1970s. “All someone has to do is utter the magic words and they’re out of trouble.”

Luke Largess, one of two Charlotte attorneys whose lawsuit resulted in North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage being overturned last October, said the law is a “setback to the image of the state nationally” and “a complete stab in the heart of gay and lesbian people in the state.”

Business as usual

Registers of deeds the Observer reached Friday said they were conducting business as usual, and gay couples should not encounter problems if they seek marriage licenses.

Between last October and April, Granberry said, the Mecklenburg office issued 747 same-sex marriage licenses. That’s nearly 20 percent of the 3,591 licenses the office processed during that time, he said.

And though none of his employees said this week they would recuse themselves, Granberry said that could easily change Monday when he meets with his staff.

“I may have somebody come in Monday morning after church and decide they want to opt out,” he said.

On Friday, he was drafting a policy that would outline the ramifications for employees who refuse licenses to gay couples, he said: “You’ll have to become an excellent book duster or do very well at the job I reassign you to.”

Unlike Mecklenburg, smaller counties with less staffing might have trouble coping if employees later decide to exercise religious exemptions, said Judy Martin, president of the North Carolina Register of Deeds Association.

Union County Register of Deeds Crystal Crump, whose office has issued 16 same-sex marriage licenses, said she spoke with her staff Thursday, and in October when same-sex marriage was legalized. She reminded them they took an oath.

“They understood this was part of their job and they were here to serve every citizen that came in the door,” she said.

She instructed her staff to take a couple of days to decide whether they will use the religious exemption, and to let her know so she can make preparations. “I don’t want any confrontation in the office to upset either party,” she said.

Magistrates mixed

Magistrates in Mecklenburg and Lincoln counties don’t feel the law will cause problems, while their counterparts in Union and Rowan counties declined to comment.

Gaston County magistrates have not yet discussed how the law affects them, according to an official who would not identify himself.

Like heterosexual couples, gays will have to call and make an appointment to be married, he said. The official was unsure if William Stevenson, a magistrate who resigned in October over the issue, would return to work.

Cabarrus County District Court Judge William Hamby, who supervises that county’s magistrates, refused to say whether magistrates there recused themselves, calling it a personnel matter. He said he had not received any complaints about magistrates refusing to marry same-sex couples.

A memo from the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts tells magistrates that recusal forms are not considered public record and their refusal to perform marriages is not considered a crime.

Largess, the attorney from Charlotte, says the law violates the First Amendment.

“What you’re saying is that as a public official, you swear to uphold the Constitution unless God tells you otherwise,” he said. “Their view of God is what controls who gets married in North Carolina.”

McFadden: 704-358-6045

How many same-sex marriage licenses have been issued:

County

Number of same-sex marriage licenses issued

Mecklenburg

747

Gaston

62

Iredell

est. 15

Rowan

est. 12

Union

16

Lincoln

est. 20

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