Update: Alamance judge says all magistrates must perform marriages

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Advocates with North Carolina’s largest LGBT advocacy group say they will continue to monitor several alleged cases of discrimination against same-gender couples following a judge’s order striking down the state’s anti-LGBT constitutional marriage ban, commonly known as Amendment One.

Statewide advocacy group Equality North Carolina said Tuesday it will work to ensure all couples have access to legally wed, now a constitutional right.

Their moves come after an Eastern North Carolina magistrate refused to marry two men on Monday, the story going viral on Tuesday and landing in national news outlets and blogs.

“Throughout this process, Equality NC has been in constant contact with state and Pasquotank County county officials,” Equality NC executive director Chris Sgro said in a statement. “Through these conversations, we have been assured that the magistrate in question, like all magistrates statewide, must adhere to the law invalidating Amendment One, and perform requested civil ceremonies of same-sex couples.”

Sgro added: “In the meantime, we will continue to monitor this situation, as well as the experiences of all same-sex couples seeking the newfound freedom to marry in all 100 counties of our state. We will expect no less than full and equal access to marriage as afforded by North Carolina law.”

Citing his religious beliefs, Pasquotank County Magistrate Gary Littleton had refused to marry the couple on Monday, the first full day of legal same-sex marriage in the state.

Chief District Court Judge Christopher Bean, who oversees magistrates in seven counties, including Pasquotank, held a special meeting with magistrates to explain to them the law.

“It is discrimination sure, I mean you’re supposed to treat under the law everyone exactly the same,” Bean told news station WVEC.

Littleton’s refusal could cost him a job or other disciplinary action. All magistrates are required to perform their duties under the law — religious exemptions aren’t allowed.

But, Bean said some confusion should have been expected.

“Everything happened so fast,” Bean told WTKR. “You’ve got to remember magistrates are not lawyers, they are just citizens who have been appointed. They don’t necessarily know how to interpret the law.”

Bean has said he will likely remove Littleton from his office if he continues to refuse his duties.

Other counties might have problems, too

Attempts to slow down marriage licenses or refuse to grant them seem to be potential problems in other counties, too.

Over the weekend, a register of deeds in Iredell County said he’d refuse to issue same-gender marriage licenses until he received specific written permission from state authorities. Late Sunday night, a letter from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services was issued.

Couples in other counties could experience religious discrimination, too.

In Alamance County, Register of Deeds Hugh Webster is allowing members of his staff to refuse to grant marriage licenses.

Webster told The Burlington Times-News that “about half” of his employees have cited their personal beliefs and said they are “uncomfortable” granting licenses to LGBT couples.

For now, Webster is stepping in to do those duties.

“I’ve told my staff, ‘I’m not going to ask anyone to do something that runs against your raising,’” Webster said. “It goes against my raising, too, but I’ll do it.”

And, as in Pasquotank County, some magistrates in Alamance might be refusing to serve same-gender couples.

Webster has said one magistrate there has told him won’t officiate the weddings. Local Chief District Court Judge Jim Roberson has spoken to each of the 11 magistrates in the county.

“As a team, we’re going to abide by the law,” Roberson said. “Some of our magistrates have concerns based on their faiths and religious beliefs. I completely respect that. Other magistrates do not.”

Roberson also said he would make sure magistrates were available to perform ceremonies if one were to refuse.

Questions over the role of magistrates — which are required to perform all marriages — prompted a letter Monday from state court officials.

“Magistrates should begin immediately conducting marriages of all couples presenting a marriage license issued by the Register of Deeds. No further authorization or instructions are necessary under the recent federal ruling. We can assure our magistrates that they are authorized to conduct those marriages of same-sex couples under the existing statutory authority they possess,” John W. Smith, director of North Carolina’s Administrative Office of the Courts, wrote in a memo (PDF).

On Wednesday, Equality North Carolina also responded to the alleged incidents in Alamance County.

“Equality NC is extremely concerned about the situation for same-sex couples seeking civil ceremonies in Alamance County,” the organization said in a statement. “While details of unlawful actions on the part of magistrates are still unclear, it appears from statements made in the media that certain magistrates who object to performing same-sex marriage ceremonies will not be required to do so, in direct violation of the law.”

Equality NC added: “We are investigating these claims and will work diligently with local, state, and federal officials to assure that all state employees, including public officials in North Carolina’s 100 counties, are upholding the marriage laws of our state.”

In Guilford County, Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen — who, though a defendant in suits to overturn the marriage ban, has said he supports marriage equality — is facing criticism from conservative members of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners. Thigpen’s office was one of three to remain open late or reopen after Friday’s order.

Asheville bomb threat

The threats to full marriage equality for LGBT couples weren’t just legal this week. On Monday, police and bomb-sniffing dogs had to be called to the Buncombe County Register of Deeds office in Asheville after a caller phoned in with threatening remarks.

No physical threats or explosives were found.

Police and bomb-sniffing dogs responded to a bomb threat at the William H. Stanley Center on Woodfin Street Monday morning, after a caller made disparaging comments about the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses, said Natalie Bailey, spokeswoman for the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office.

No explosives were found and the building was not evacuated.

“We have protocols and procedures in place to keep everybody safe, and in this particular instance everything worked the way it should,” Natalie Bailey, a Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, told The Asheville Citizen-Times. “Our folks went out and checked and nothing was found. Once they did that, people were able to go on and get their licenses.”

Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.