Gov. Pat McCrory announced Thursday afternoon that he’ll veto a bill to allow magistrates to opt out of performing marriage if they have a religious objection.
The governor’s announcement came just hours after the N.C. House approved it in a 67-43 final vote Thursday.
“I recognize that for many North Carolinians, including myself, opinions on same-sex marriage come from sincerely held religious beliefs that marriage is between a man and a woman,” McCrory said in a news release.
“However, we are a nation and a state of laws. Whether it is the president, governor, mayor, a law enforcement officer, or magistrate, no public official who voluntarily swears to support and defend the Constitution and to discharge all duties of their office should be exempt from upholding that oath; therefore, I will veto Senate Bill 2.”
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.
With McCrory planning a veto, Thursday’s House vote tally indicates that a three-fifths majority to override a veto might prove challenging for the Republican leadership.
About 61 percent of the legislators voting Thursday supported the bill, but 10 House members were absent or didn’t vote. Of those, five are Republicans, four are Democrats, and one is unaffiliated Rep. Paul Tine, who’s part of the GOP caucus.
An override is more likely in the Senate, where the 32-16 vote on Feb. 25 represents two-thirds of the chamber.
McCrory made his position on Senate Bill 2 clear during a Charlotte radio interview in March: “I don’t think you should have an exemption when you took an oath to uphold … the constitution of North Carolina,” he said.
Thursday’s announcement came the day McCrory received a letter from a Catawba County executive who said he would take more than $20 million in business out of state if the bill became law. John Pope is chairman of the 750-employee Cargo Transporters.
“As a company based here that believes in FULL EQUALITY for our employees,” he wrote the governor, “we will not sit idly by and let the rogue legislators of this state ruin the business and employee recruiting opportunties for this state.”
Pope threatened to move what he said was a $20 million Freightliner order from Cleveland County to Mexico. McCrory spokesman Josh Ellis said the governor had decided to veto the bill before getting the letter.
McCrory’s position puts him at odds with Senate leader Phil Berger – who sponsored the bill – and House Speaker Tim Moore, who voted in favor of it Thursday. The move will be the governor’s first veto in the current legislative session, which began in January.
Shortly after McCrory’s announcement, Berger and Moore issued a joint statement criticizing the move.
“We respect but disagree with the governor’s decision to veto Senate Bill 2, since the First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees ‘the free exercise of religion,’” they said. “Unfortunately, Senate Bill 2 is necessary because a bureaucracy failed to make reasonable accommodations and instead forced some magistrates to make an impossible choice between their core religious beliefs and their jobs.”
McCrory has vetoed only three bills since taking office, two of which were overridden in both the House and Senate.
Supporters of Senate Bill 2 say it effectively balances the rights of state employees who object to same-sex marriage and the rights of the couples seeking a wedding.
“This bill provides a balancing act – to make sure marriages across this state are performed in a blind fashion,” said Rep. Dean Arp, a Monroe Republican. “The question is should you be fired from a job because you choose to live your life by those religious beliefs.”
Equality North Carolina, an LGBT advocacy group, issued a statement praising McCrory for his planned veto.
“We applaud Gov. Pat McCrory’s promise to veto this discriminatory legislation and call on our legislature to follow their own oath to protect all North Carolinians by sustaining that veto,” executive director Chris Sgro said in a news release. “Both actions will send a strong message that no public official is exempt from the constitution they themselves have sworn to uphold and that all North Carolinians deserve equal access to state services under the law.”
The conservative N.C. Values Coalition, which has advocated for the bill, issued a stinging critique of McCrory’s decision Thursday afternoon.
“Senate Bill 2 will protect the fundamental American freedom to exercise one’s religious beliefs, and it is unacceptable for any governor who calls himself ‘conservative’ to veto legislation like SB2,” spokeswoman Jessica Wood said.
Only one House member changed his mind between Wednesday’s initial 65-45 vote and Thursday’s final tally: Rules Chairman David Lewis, a Dunn Republican. Lewis voted against the bill on Wednesday but voted yes on Thursday.
“I spent a lot of time reflecting on the issue, and I think it’s important to recognize that there are quite a few fallacies in the arguments against the bill,” he said. “The right to choose who marries you and who doesn’t marry you isn’t a right, and that was misconveyed in the debate. The right is to get married, and this bill doesn’t infringe upon it.”
Rep. Charles Graham of Lumberton joined Rep. Ken Waddell of Columbus County as the only two Democrats supporting the bill. Graham hadn’t voted on Wednesday.
Rep. Rick Glazier, a Fayetteville Democrat, said the exemption for magistrates is only offered in Utah, and other states have turned similar proposals down. “We’re doing something that even Texas refused to do,” he said.
Some Democrats are already raising money from the outcry over the bill. Within minutes of the vote, Rep. Brian Turner of Asheville emailed supporters.
“This bill will end up in the courts wasting hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars,” he said in the email. “Raleigh needs leaders who think jobs and education are better investments than lawsuits. That’s why I need you to invest $15, $25, or $50 today to send me back to Raleigh to focus on growing our local economy and investing in our teachers and kids.”
While Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed 19 bills during her final two years in office – after Republicans took control of the legislature – McCrory has only issued three vetoes since taking office in 2013. Here’s what they were:
House Bill 392 allows welfare recipients to be tested if social workers suspect they have been abusing drugs and to determine whether there are outstanding felony warrants or whether applicants have violated the terms of parole or probation. McCrory opposed it, saying it was costly and ineffective in other states and lacked the needed funding. The House voted 77-39 to override his veto, and the Senate followed suit in a 34-10 vote.
House Bill 786 is an immigration bill that triples the period in which seasonal workers do not have to have their immigration status checked in the federal E-Verify system. McCrory said it “makes it more difficult for North Carolina workers to get jobs” and vetoed it, but the House countered with an 84-32 override vote. The Senate overrode it 39-5.
House Bill 1069 would have addressed the role of the governor and legislature in appointing members of an unemployment benefits appeals board. McCrory called it “unacceptable” because it would “stagger and shorten terms of current lawfully seated members.” The House didn’t take a vote to override the veto and instead let the bill die in the Rules Committee.