When a federal judge cleared the legal path for same-sex marriage in North Carolina earlier this month, it set off a flurry of weddings and celebrations, mostly in urban areas of the state.
But the joy was hardly unanimous, including among some public officials whose jobs include performing marriages.
At least six magistrates have quit or announced their resignations since same-sex marriages became legal Oct. 10, the Observer found.
Some left 20-year jobs that paid more than $50,000. Their decisions, they said, were based on religious beliefs.
“When you have convictions about something, you’ve drawn your line in the sand,” said Gayle Myrick, 64, a former Union County magistrate. “It (marrying gay couples) was not a consideration to me at any cost.”
Myrick joined magistrates in Gaston, Swain, Graham, Jackson and Rockingham counties who resigned – or announced plans to quit – because of the change in the marriage law. It’s unclear how many other magistrates have similar intentions.
Opponents of same-sex marriages said it’s likely other public officials feel the same but have chosen to keep their jobs for financial reasons.
The debate over a person’s individual rights versus their duties on the job is playing out across the country.
But the issue gets especially murky when it involves public officials, said Charles Haynes, director of the nonprofit Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C.
“From the beginning of our history as a nation, we have always valued our liberty of conscience and freedom,” he said. “(North Carolina’s situation) is one of the tougher areas, because when you work for the state, you serve the people.”
State Republican leaders are challenging the change in the marriage law. On Friday, Senate leader Phil Berger and 27 other Republicans asked the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts to grant protections to officials who refuse to participate in gay marriages because of religious beliefs.
Supporters of same-sex marriages said magistrates should do their job.
“State officials don’t get to pick and choose what laws they need to follow,” said Chris Brook, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina. “They can’t turn people away just because of who they are and who they love.”
Decision to leave
Four years after becoming a magistrate in Swain County, Gilbert Breedlove, 57, was ordained as a Baptist minister. He preaches to about 20 worshippers in the mountain county. Breedlove saw the changes coming through the courts.
“There are many who won’t let their personal beliefs interfere with their jobs,” Breedlove said. “In this case, I had no option.”
Breedlove left the magistrate job that paid $52,000 annually, more than the county’s median household income of about $43,400.
With his minister position only part time, Breedlove said it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to make a living off it or by helping to bind and translate Bibles into American Indian languages.
“You either go for the finances or you go for the faith,” he said. “I know the Lord has something for me to do.”
Breedlove said he’s received support from family and friends, though he acknowledged that critical online comments from news articles have been hurtful.
Like Breedlove, Tommy Holland quit the job he held since the early 1990s. He was a magistrate in Graham County, on the Tennessee line, and also earned about $52,000 a year. He, too, is Baptist.
Holland, 58, said the decision to leave was tough, but simple. The county’s three magistrates received a state memo detailing the law change and reminding them that it’s their duty to perform marriage ceremonies no matter the sexual orientation of the couple.
“When you’re a magistrate, you take the oath to uphold the law of North Carolina,” he said. “It’s up to you to honor it. I just couldn’t.”
Jackson County magistrate Jeff Powell and Gaston County magistrate William Stevenson confirmed they left because of the change but declined to comment.
Same-sex marriages became legal this month when two federal judges ruled North Carolina’s ban on gay marriages unconstitutional. Since then, 188 gay couples have married in Mecklenburg County, said David Granberry, register of deeds. No state figures were available.
While registers of deeds issue marriage licenses, magistrates perform the ceremonies. Magistrates also issue warrants and set bail. They can accept guilty pleas and payments of fines for minor misdemeanors and traffic violations. Magistrates must hold a four-year college degree or a two-year degree, plus relevant work experience, according to the state. North Carolina employed about 670 magistrates last fiscal year.
Challenging the law
Berger, the Republican senator, said he’ll craft a bill that would protect state officials who refuse – because of religious reasons – to issue marriage licenses or marry gay couples.
He discussed his plans in Rockingham County, where magistrate John Kallam Jr. said he’d rather step down than marry same-sex couples.
“Here, in Rockingham County, forcing Magistrate Kallam to give up his religious liberties to save his job is just wrong,” Berger said.
On Friday, Berger and other state Senate Republicans sent a letter to the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts director, Judge John Smith. They said the courts failed to tell magistrates of religious protections afforded to state employees.
Two magistrates told the Observer that a memo they received from the Administrative Office of the Courts hinted at criminal prosecution if they did not perform gay marriage ceremonies.
“Assertions amounting to threats about job loss and criminal prosecution without acknowledgment of recognized and existing workplace protections appear to have misled some supervisors to believe that the law will not tolerate the actions of reasonable men and women,” stated Berger’s letter to Smith.
James Esseks, director of the ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project, said a law that lets government workers choose who they serve “violates the principles of fair play.
“That’s not religious freedom,” Esseks said. “That’s discrimination.”
A balancing act
Haynes, the director at the Newseum Institute, said he expected push-back in states with newly minted marriage laws. In 2012, North Carolina voters passed a state constitutional ban on gay marriages by approving Amendment One.
That ban, along with an existing state law limiting marriages to a man and a woman, were overturned after two federal judges said they were illegal under an earlier gay marriage ruling by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Haynes said there is a balancing act between society’s interest and the interest of a person’s religious freedom.
“Nondiscrimination and religious freedom are both core American principles,” he said. “If we can have marriage equality and also protect freedom of conscience, then I think that’s really the best way to go forward.”
Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis have hired lawyers to appeal the federal marriage ruling. They’re hoping to get another hearing before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court about the legality of the state’s constitutional marriage ban.
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said there were no more legal options left and Gov. Pat McCrory said all state agencies would comply with the federal decision
Staff writer Michael Gordon contributed.