As a county clerk in Kentucky heads to jail for refusing to perform marriages, 32 North Carolina magistrates have opted out of those duties.
Their actions are legal under a controversial state law that allows magistrates and register of deeds employees to recuse themselves from marriage duties if they have a “sincerely held religious belief” – such as an objection to same-sex marriage.
The recusals represent 4.8 percent of the state’s 670 magistrates, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts. The state isn’t releasing the magistrates’ names or the counties in which they work, arguing that the recusal forms are a confidential personnel record.
Senate Bill 2 was approved in June after both the House and Senate voted to override Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto.
Opponents of the law say it effectively legalizes what Rowan County, Ky., clerk Kim Davis did: She refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because she says the action would violate her religious beliefs. She was held in contempt of court Thursday for her objection and sent to jail by a federal judge.
“What’s happening in Kentucky can happen here,” said Jonah Hermann, a spokesman for Equality NC, an LGBT advocacy group. “Fortunately for the people of the Old North State, we have not had the Kim Davis situation yet, but something like that could absolutely occur under North Carolina law.”
Republicans who supported the legislation, however, argue that it prevents couples seeking a marriage from being turned down. They say they’ve heard no reports that anyone has been refused service.
The law requires each county magistrates office to offer weddings for at least 10 hours a week over at least three days. Register of deeds offices must have someone available to issue marriage licenses whenever they’re open.
“It’s keeping folks from having to choose between their jobs and their religious beliefs,” said Senate leader Phil Berger, who sponsored the bill. “I think that’s important.”
But Hermann says the 10-hour requirement could prove problematic because counties aren’t required to post any notice listing when weddings are available.
“Equality NC doesn’t believe that any couple should have to plan their marriage around when an office must be open,” he said.
Hermann wouldn’t say whether his group has heard from any couples who had trouble getting married.
“In order to protect any potential couples that have been turned away, we’re not at liberty to speak about that,” he said. “We are talking to our lawyers, and we’re looking at the possibility of putting together a lawsuit.”
The number of magistrate recusals has increased in the months since the exemption became law. About a month after the recusals were first offered in June, only 14 magistrates had applied for them. The N.C. Association of Registers of Deeds reported recusals in five of 100 counties in July but hasn’t polled its members to update the total since then.