Marriage opt-out now law

Rep. Ken Goodman

Rep. Garland Pierce

RALEIGH — Magistrates across North Carolina can now recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to those whose union would conflict with their religious beliefs.

The House voted 68-42 just after 10 a.m. on Thursday to override Gov. Pat McCrory’s May 28 veto of Senate Bill 2, solidifying the bill as a state law that exempts deputy registers of deeds, assistant registers of deeds and county magistrates from issuing a marriage license which conflicts with “any sincerely held religious objection.”

Registers of deeds would still be required to issue a license.

McCrory called the House vote “disappointing.”

“I will continue to stand up for conservative principles that respect and obey the oath of office for public officials across our state and nation,” he said in a statement. “While some people inside the beltline are focusing on symbolic issues, I remain focused on the issues that are going to have the greatest impact on the next generation such as creating jobs, building roads, strengthening education and improving our quality of life.”

Senate Bill 2, sponsored primarily by Sen. Phil Berger, was filed on Jan. 28 and passed the Senate on Feb. 25. It was passed by the House on May 28 and promptly vetoed by McCrory the next day.

The state Senate’s override came on June 1, with a 48-32 vote.

“For me, this is not gay marriage issue per se,” said state Rep. Ken Goodman, who voted against the override. “Magistrates take an oath to uphold the Constitution, and the oath says they are to perform marriage ceremonies.”

Same-sex marriage has been legally recognized in North Carolina since Oct. 10, when a U.S. District Court ruling struck down North Carolina Amendment One. That amendment, which attempted to make same-sex marriage unconstitutional, was approved by 61 percent of the state’s voters. In Scotland County, the percentage of voters in favor of the amendment was much higher, near 80 percent.

Goodman lamented the apparent rush to make the bill a law, saying the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on whether states can choose to honor gay marriages should come in a few weeks, which could make Thursday’s vote a waste of time and taxpayer dollars. Goodman also said the law is “bad for business.”

“A lot of businesses that want to come here are more tolerant in their laws, so to speak, and this makes it harder to recruit businesses to North Carolina,” he said.

But while the debate surrounding the bill has centered on gay marriage, the wording does not specify which type of union could qualify for a religious objection.

“What happens if someone thinks that someone who has been divorced shouldn’t be remarried?” said Page Pratt, Scotland County’s register of deeds. “It’s not quite a Pandora’s box, but there’s a lot more issues at play in this situation.”

Concerned that all deputy and assistant registers of deeds could theoretically choose to opt out of issuing certain marriage licenses, creating a backlog, Pratt contacted state representatives to ask them to vote against the bill. Despite the hypotheticals, Pratt doesn’t anticipate it becoming an immediate issue for gay couples who wish to marry in Scotland County — 20 since October of last year.

“Our office was created by state law to follow state law,” he said. “… To work in this office, to support the citizens of Scotland County, we take an oath to uphold the laws of the state and nation. I don’t anticipate Senate Bill 2 changes anything in this office as my staff, so far, has chosen to put the needs of our citizens and the current law of the state ahead of any personal feelings they have.”

Goodman, and state Rep. Garland Pierce, who was excused from Thursday’s vote to attend an event hosted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Study in Washington D.C., said government is far too involved in social issues.

“The law of the land says they have the right to marry,” said Pierce, who pastors a church in Laurinburg. “I definitely know what the Bible says, don’t get me wrong, but you’ve got separation of church and state. If it’s right or if it’s wrong, people still have the right to choose the way they live their life.

“There’s a lot of issues we should be dealing with that could really help people, but instead we’re bogged down with all these other issues. Some things are just pure politics.”

Pierce is confident a lawsuit will soon be filed — as is Charles Beem, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and an advocate for gay rights.

“This law will be challenged in court,” Beem said. “It remains to see how much the courts will weigh in on this.”

Beem sees the law as “discrimination being passed off as religious freedom,” questioning what would happen if similar laws allowed state employees — such as those in the UNC system — to refrain from offering services to gays.

“What would have happened 40 years ago, after Loving V. Virginia, if they wanted to craft a law where people wouldn’t be forced to marry people of different races?”

Abbi Overfelt can be reached at 910-506-3023.