Editorials

Public officials must represent all

The Observer editorial board

Chad Biggs (left) and his fiance, Chris Creech, say their wedding vows in front of Wake County magistrate Dexter Williams at the Wake County Courthouse in Raleigh last October.
Chad Biggs (left) and his fiance, Chris Creech, say their wedding vows in front of Wake County magistrate Dexter Williams at the Wake County Courthouse in Raleigh last October. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Sometimes, an issue can be very complex, and very simple.

So it is with North Carolina’s debate over Senate Bill 2, the legislation allowing magistrates who oppose same-sex unions to opt out of performing gay marriages.

It’s a complicated issue because it poses questions about religion and sexuality – two subjects that can quickly turn any polite dinner party into a verbal food fight.

But as Carol Ann Person’s essay on this page shows, it’s also a simple issue. As simple as a taxpaying citizen wanting her government to treat her the same as any other citizen, regardless of her race or other distinguishing personal characteristics.

Whatever else we Americans might have made out of the ancient institution of marriage, we’ve made it a government-sanctioned privilege as well. We license it and regulate it, not unlike driving a car or carrying a concealed weapon.

As we have said in this space, whenever government gets involved in supplying a service, every citizen must share equal access to that service. As Person’s experience shows so powerfully, it is inherently hurtful and discriminatory to tell one class of people they can’t access the same government services as everyone else. Her 1977 case involved magistrates who balked at marrying interracial couples, but the same principles clearly apply to today’s fight over marrying gay couples.

Supporters of Senate Bill 2 say we should let court officials who don’t object to gay marriage step in for those who do. Also on this page, University of Illinois law professor Robin Fretwell Wilson says everybody wins, especially if we work out a system that keeps gay couples from encountering magistrates who object to marrying them.

But that misses the real point. Discrimination isn’t only about denying things. It is also about government treating some citizens differently from others. This is about “separate” inherently meaning “unequal.”

Ask yourself: as segregation crumbled in the late 1960s, would we have allowed white public school teachers to keep their jobs even if they wanted to teach only white children?

No. Because to do so would have meant we as a people could countenance the idea of a government official – a representative of us all – viewing some of us as unfit for a public service.

We didn’t allow it then. We shouldn’t allow it now. If someone can’t perform the duties of this job, they should find another.

The N.C. Senate overrode Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto of Senate Bill 2. The fate of the legislation rests with the House.

Let’s hope the representatives come to see the simple, compelling virtue of Carol Ann Person’s argument.

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