Politics & Government

NC House votes 65-45 to exempt magistrates from marriage duties

dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

The N.C. House voted 65-45 Wednesday to allow magistrates to opt out of performing weddings – legislation that stems from the legalization of same-sex marriages in North Carolina last year.

A final vote on the bill is expected Thursday. Because the House made no changes to the legislation already approved by the Senate, it will go directly to Gov. Pat McCrory.

In March, McCrory voiced concerns about the bill and said he won’t sign it. He stopped short, however, of saying he would veto it. The governor can allow bills to become law without his signature.

Senate Bill 2 would allow magistrates and register of deeds employees to be exempt from performing weddings if they have a religious objection. Opponents of the measure say it would allow discrimination against same-sex couples, though workers seeking the exemption couldn’t perform any type of wedding for at least a six-month period.

The bill is sponsored by Senate leader Phil Berger. On Wednesday, nearly all Democrats voted against it, and they were joined by five Republicans: Rules Chairman David Lewis and Reps. John Ray Bradford, John Fraley, Charles Jeter and Jon Hardister. Democratic Rep. Ken Waddell was the only member of his party voting yes.

Republican Rep. Dean Arp of Monroe presented the bill on Berger’s behalf. “It ensures that the civil ceremonies will be performed, and it outlines a process by which we balance the sincerely held religious beliefs of the employees and the duties of the state to perform these marriages,” Arp said.

But Democrats said the bill could mean that gay couples might be turned down for a marriage ceremony if the magistrate on duty decides to seek the exemption.

“We’re creating a situation where people can discriminate against other members of society ... and not be removed from their position,” House Democratic Leader Larry Hall said. “I’m not going to be in favor of legislating second-class citizenship.”

Supporters of the bill said fears of discrimination are unfounded. Republican Rep. Leo Daughtry of Smithfield said a marriage ceremony “may not be at that instance, but it will occur in the county. It’s not like they’re being turned down.”

The bill would require county courthouses to offer weddings for at least 10 hours a week on three business days. The Administrative Office of the Courts would be responsible for making sure a magistrate who hasn’t taken the exemption is available. The state doesn’t currently mandate how many hours weddings are offered.

“In most magistrates’ offices around the state, you have to make an appointment to get married,” said Rep. Allen McNeill, an Asheboro Republican.

But Rep. Grier Martin, a Raleigh Democrat, said the legislation could make it harder for all couples to marry in counties with few magistrates. “We’re setting ourselves up for that to be the practical effect,” he said.

Debate on the House floor quickly turned to gay marriage in general, with some Republicans criticizing the federal court ruling that made it legal.

Rep. Larry Pittman, a Concord Republican, said state employees should not be required to sanction “something they consider perverted and morally unconscionable.”

“There’s no way that anyone can support anything other than what (God) made marriage to be,” he said. “We at least ought not to be forcing people to be participating when they believe that to do so would make them traitors against the kingdom of God.”

Rep. Susan Fisher, an Asheville Democrat, said the legislature is focusing too much on social issues. “Our focus here should be on jobs and education,” she said. “This bill says that some people’s rights matter and other people’s rights don’t matter. This bill does not create jobs – in fact, it’s a job killer.”

The bill passed the Senate in a 32-16 vote on Feb. 25. For the past three months, the House has taken no action on the legislation. Wednesday’s quick movement – from committee to the House floor within hours – drew criticism from Democrats.

“We are really denying the people of North Carolina a chance to contact their elected representatives,” Martin said.

The House had initially focused on the broader Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bill similar to those that sparked loud backlash this year in Indiana and Arkansas.

House Speaker Tim Moore announced last month that the religious freedom bill was effectively dead for this session, saying it “is not the proper path to go.” But he said Republicans in his chamber instead supported the magistrates bill.

And while supporters said the bill clearly upholds the Constitution, opponents suggested that the allowing magistrates to say no could bring lawsuits.

“The term ‘sincerely held religious objection’ is legally vague,” said Rep. John Ager, a Buncombe County Democrat. “The can of legal worms this bill opens up is reason enough to vote this bill down.”

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