RALEIGH, N.C. — A bill that would allow magistrates and registers of deeds to opt out of providing legal marriage services or issuing marriage licenses passed the state Senate on Wednesday in a 32-16 vote after nearly two hours of debate. It now heads to the House.
The bill, SB 2, allows magistrates and other government officials to opt out of civil marriage related duties based on a “sincerely held religious objection.” It had quickly passed a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday, where legislative staff indicated the bill, though directed at LGBT couples, could also mean the refusal by magistrates and other officials to serve interracial couples and others.
Critics of the measure, including Equality NC and the ACLU of North Carolina, say that the bill would allow government officials to pick and choose which citizens they want to serve, using religion as a guise for discrimination.
The ACLU points out that, in 1977, two Forsyth County magistrates denied marriage services to interracial couple Thomas Roger Person and Carol Ann Figueroa. The couple successfully sued the magistrates in federal court.
Equality NC Executive Director Chris Sgro mentioned those easy parallels in short remarks delivered to the committee hearing on Tuesday.
“This bill is a direct attack on our community,” said Sgro. “History books will remember SB 2 no more favorably than an interracial couple being turned away 36 years ago.”
‘Public service, not selective service’
Proponents of the bill said in debate that it was necessary to balance religious freedom and the rights of LGBT couples.
“Let’s be frank, the federal court decisions in october, which violated the principles of federalism, has thrown us a curve ball,” said Sen. Buck Newton (R-Johnston, Nash, Wilson). “We need to establish a framework under which reasonable accommodations for sincerely held religious beliefs can be accommodated.”
Newton continued, “We have to try to find the right ground to balance what we all know to be our basic rights against this newly discovered idea of what marriage is that somehow we’ve haven’t been able to find for 200 years, but some very intelligent judges who are somehow smarter than the rest of us have found it for us.”
“People should not have to choose between their faith and their jobs,” Newton added.
Democratic state Sen. Josh Stein (Wake) spoke out forcefully against the bill, saying it violated fundamental principles of public service.
As a public servant, I represent all the people in my district,” Stein said. “I do not, we do not have the right to pick and choose whom we serve in the public. It’s called public service. We don’t get to select whom we want to help. It’s public service, not selective service.”
Stein also cautioned fellow lawmakers on the dangerous precedent which could be set by the bill. Creating a special right to opt-out of civil job functions, Stein said, could result in widespread discrimination — a Department of Revenue employee refusing to process the tax return of a married gay couple, a ticket taker at the state zoo refusing to sell a family pass to a same-sex parent-headed family, a school administrator refusing to talk to a gay parent of a school student.
“And there’s no rationale to limit discrimination to gay people,” added Stein. “It could open the floodgates to any discriminate that offends someone’s belief. I a public school teacher has a sincerely held religious belief against having a child out of wedlock, should they be able to refuse to interact with a single mom?”
Stein added: “Passing this bill will embolden other public servants to choose who and when they perform their job. They will choose to deny to serve the very people whose taxes it is who pays their salaries.”
Republican Sen. Warren Daniel (Burke, Cleveland) said this bill was necessary to stop “a couple of judges in black robes in Richmond” from forcing their views on state employees, accusing the judges of knowing better than God and the people of North Carolina. Daniel was referring judges in the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, whose decisions led to the overturn anti-LGBT marriage amendments in the Carolinas and Virginias.
Debate turns to God, Scripture
Republican Sen. Ralph Hise (Madison, McDowell) said the bill is necessary to protect people of faith, who he said “are being driven out of public service.”
“We have reached a dangerous place,” Hise said. “There are examples all through the Scripture where the government is asking people to bend their knee to service to Baal, in service to idols, to something inconsistent with their faith.”
Hise added, “There may come a day where because of my faith, I’m not allowed to serve in the General Assembly or in other capacities. That is a direction I see society moving toward as a whole, but I will take every step and fight along the way to make sure that is not the direction we continue to go in as a government.”
Republican Bill Cook (Beaufort, Camden) also said the bill would protect rights to worship.
“You can’t trample on what I would say is my God-given right, and it’s in our constitution, to worship however I choose,” Cook said.
Democratic Sen. Terry Van Duyn (Buncombe) countered Republican debate and shared the experience of people in her district, “home to thousands of same-sex couples,” she said.
“These are people who live everyday as second-class citizens and all they want is something you and I utterly take for granted — the freedom to love who you love and be who you are,” Van Duyn said. “Denying them the right to live their lives as their true selves is not only wrong but stifles our ability to realize our potential.”
Van Duyn added, “It is time for us to turn the page and say once and for all that North Carolina is moving forward and that we are open for business and we welcome unreservedly everyone who wants to help us build a better future for ourselves and our children.”
During debate, bill co-sponsor Buck Newton said he was deeply offended at bill opponents’ comparisons to discriminations based on race. The federal Civil Rights Act protects people on the basis of race and religion, he said.
“You’re born in your race. I don’t know about sexual orientation,” Newton said.
Newton’s final debate remarks devolved into a long-winded, sermon-like rant against LGBT equality and the authority of the U.S. Constitution:
“I didn’t choose to have this debate. The vast majority of us thought the definition of marriage was pretty clear. We thought that it was pretty clear in the Bible. We thought 3000 years of society made it pretty clear. We thought that 300 years of these colonies and this country made it clear. Most of us thought our founding fathers could have never conceived of something like this. But, yet, as I said before, we’ve got some wise old judges that know better than us, that know better than our founding fathers. They know more than God. … My Lord and Savior you were referring to also told that woman to go forth and sin no more. It’s not my place to judge whether or not these folks are right with their maker. That’s not up to me. That’s up to him. I don’t judge. That’s not my job. My job here and our job here is to decide how we’re going to handle these issues. How are we going to balance what we know to be our First Amendment rights, what we know is right either in our personal lives or as citizens in the great republic, the rights that we were endowed by our creator, which include our religious freedom — how are we going to balance that? Those that oppose this bill, they’re answer is to say to magistrates and registers of deeds that don’t want to participate, tough luck, bend your knee. Comply. Comply or we’ll prosecute you. Because that’s what the AOC said. Comply or we’ll prosecute you. Is that right? Is that what this body would stand for? I challenge everybody on the back row and those voting against this bill to think about that. Where does it go next? Who’s next to be told to stand forward and kiss the ring? Who’s next? The baker? The florist? We’ve already seen that. We have to find a path forward. We must find a way forward. I will not stand idly by and watch the demands of a few insist that particular magistrates must perform a wedding that he or she strongly believes is immoral. I will not stand by and force that to happen. You on the back row apparently seem to think that is supposed to happen.”
Mecklenburg Republican opposes bill, 2 Dems in favor
Two Republican members of the Senate voted against the bill.
Republican John Alexander of Wake County voted against the bill, with Mecklenburg Sen. Jeff Tarte joining him. Tarte was the only one of the pair to address the Senate, saying he was a Methodist, and agreed with his church’s official teaching that marriage is a religious sacrament between one man and one woman. He also said he understood the religious freedom impetus for the bill.
But, after speaking to attorneys, magistrates, judges and others, Tarte said he would oppose the legislation in order “to uphold the rule of law.”
“I love each of you. You are all God’s children,” Tarte said. “I don’t know what the right answer is. It keeps me up at night.”
Tarte added, “I don’t live in the Old Testament. I live in the New Testament. Christ is about love.”
His vote against the bill, Tarte concluded, was “about trying to do the right thing.”
Bill sponsor and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) said his bill aims to protect the rule of law and the First amendment.
“Yes, we have to respect the rule of law. This bill does that,” he said. We are also a nation and a people that started in many respects with folks who came here in order to be able to freely exercise their religious beliefs. … We have an obligation if we’re going to be a nation of laws to provide a reasonable accommodation when there is the kind of conflict we see here.”
Two Democrats voted for the discriminatory bill.
In personal comments after the passage, Cumberland County Democrat Ben Clark explained his reasons.
“I’ve listened carefully to the passionate arguments put forth on both sides of the aisle,” Clark told the Senate. “I’m deeply committed to equal rights and fair treatment for all North Carolinians. I’m persuaded that Senate Bill 2 accomplishes two important tasks. … Senate Bill 2 ensures the rights of all couples to be married while protecting the religious freedoms of individuals with sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Mecklenburg County Democrat Joel Ford also voted for the bill.
Bill condemned by advocates, heads to House
After Senate passage Wednesday, the bill will now head to the state House. It’s not yet clear when the bill might be heard there.
Equality NC was quick to condemn the measure after its Senate passage.
“Even though this narrowly-tailored bill does not specifically mention same-gender couples, this type of legislation nevertheless represents a shot across the bow of the LGBT community,” Equality NC Executive Director Chris Sgro said in a press release. “At a time when the N.C. General Assembly should be taking up job protections that apply to all North Carolinians, Senate leaders have instead chosen to protect the employment of a few anti-LGBT North Carolina magistrates who turned away loving, committed same-gender couples – couples who are legally-entitled to all services this state provides, regardless of the beliefs of those providing them.”
Sgro added, “In the wake of constant threats from extremists in our state legislature, and the anti-LGBT industry they serve, we ask our supporters to join us right now as we prepare to fight this, and any attacks on LGBT North Carolinians, during this legislative session.”
The Campaign for Southern Equality, an Asheville-based LGBT advocacy group, also reacted.
“This discriminatory bill treats gay and lesbian couples as second-class citizens and distorts the true meaning of religious freedom,” the Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, said in a statement. “Once again our legislature has demonstrated a willful disregard for the basic concept of treating all North Carolinians fairly. Like Amendment One, I believe this bill will not stand the test of time because it is rooted in animus.”
Equality NC is asking their supporters to sign two action alerts, state legislators.
They also want North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory to take a position on the bill and veto if it should pass the legislature. A second petition is targeting McCrory.
The magistrates bill was promised by State Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger last fall, after federal courts overturned the state’s anti-LGBT marriage amendment.
A broader, more far-reaching discriminatory bill is widely expected to be introduced this session, as well.