Group: NC officials can refuse to marry gay couples

A group that backed a North Carolina constitutional amendment on gay marriage is telling public officials that they can refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses in their counties.

The North Carolina Values Coalition sent an email Saturday to the state’s registers of deeds saying that their religious and moral beliefs are protected by federal and state constitutions.

Registers of deeds issue marriage, birth and death certificates. They document real estate transactions and handle military discharge recordings.

The officials can refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses by claiming their “First Amendment right not to violate their religious beliefs,” the coalition’s email states.

Advocates of same-sex marriages balked at the assertion. Chris Brook, legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina, said every level of the federal court system has sided with same-sex marriages, and there was “no un-ringing of the wedding bells.”

He said a few officials made a similar argument in the 1970s, when they said it was against their religion to marry an interracial couple.

“It (their argument) doesn’t hold any water,” Brook said.

The Values Coalition email referenced a memo by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian-based legal organization out of Arizona.

That memo, also sent to North Carolina’s registers of deeds, said officials who disagree with gay marriages can appoint a deputy to process the marriage licenses.

If they can’t find one, they can refuse to issue the license and are protected by the First Amendment and a state law that says, “no human authority shall ... control or interfere with the rights of conscience.”

“One thing is clear,” said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition. “Forcing voters across the state of North Carolina to carry out same-sex weddings when it violates their religious beliefs ... is wrong. And it violates the free exercise of religion that’s guaranteed by the Constitution.”

Fitzgerald’s group backed the state’s 2012 constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage.

Brook said he understands that people have religious liberties, but he said the marriage law does not force churches or private citizens to perform same-sex ceremonies.

“We’re talking about state actors carrying out state job responsibilities,” he said.

Fitzgerald said she’s heard from several registers of deeds and magistrates, who thanked her for the information.

She guessed that hundreds of public officials agree with the coalition’s position.

“When they took their oath of office, same-sex marriage was illegal,” she said. “And now they’re being told they’re forced to hold ceremonies that violate their deeply held religious beliefs.”

That’s why Rockingham County Magistrate John Kallam Jr. resigned last week, according to news reports.

“I did not ... take that oath with any understanding that I would be required to marry same-sex couples,” he wrote.

Same-sex marriages became legal in North Carolina earlier this month when two federal judges ruled the state’s marriage amendment was unconstitutional.

Since then, hundreds of same-sex couples have received marriage certificates, including an estimated 379 on the first full day without the state ban.

State Sen. Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis have said they intend to appeal the judges’ rulings.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer