North Carolina Lawmakers Consider ‘License To Discriminate’ For State Marriage Officiants

CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerry Broome

North Carolina Senate Leader Phil Berger

Since marriage equality’s arrival in North Carolina this month, at least two magistrates have resigned from their roles in the state judicial system to avoid having to officiate marriages for same-sex couples. This week, Senate Leader Phil Berger (R) said he will introduce legislation that allows officiants to refuse to perform marriages that violate their religious beliefs.

According to Berger, who is continuing to fight the marriage equality ruling with House Speaker and Senate candidate Thom Tillis (R), “The court’s expansion of the freedoms of some should not violate the well-recognized constitutional rights of others.” He doesn’t believe complying with marriage equality should “require our state employees to compromise their core religious beliefs and First Amendment rights in order to protect their livelihoods.”

In his resignation letter, Rockingham County Magistrate John Kallam, Jr. said that he believes marrying same-sex couples “would desecrate a holy Institution established by God Himself.” Swain County Magistrate Judge Gilbert Breedlove said that he resigned because performing a same-sex marriage “was just something I couldn’t do because of my religious beliefs.” According to his reading of the Bible, “marriage is between a man and a wife; any other type of sexual activity other than that is what is defined as fornication.”

The North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts has warned magistrates that their oath of office requires them to fulfill their duties for any couple with a valid marriage license. Alamance County Chief District Court Judge Jim Robertson similarly instructed all magistrates in the county to perform all valid marriages.

In the first days after the marriage equality ruling, a Pasquotank magistrate refused to perform a same-sex marriage earlier this month, but so far has not yet been disciplined. The couple returned the following day and were married by a different magistrate.

Berger is not the only one who believes taxpayer-funded magistrates should be free to discriminate. The North Carolina Values Coalition, which helped pass Amendment One banning the recognition of same-sex unions in the state’s Constitution, is also encouraging magistrates to refuse to marry same-sex couples. The coalition references a letter from the anti-LGBT Alliance Defending Freedom, which asserts that if the state does not accommodate magistrates unwilling to perform their duties, it “suggests an unconstitutional, discriminatory intent on the part of the state or others demanding that the official violate their conscience.”

The Associated Press notes that in 1977, a similar conflict arose when two Forsyth County magistrates refused to marry a black man and white woman.

Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality NC, responded that “Sen. Berger continues to waste taxpayer dollars and ignore the real issues of the day” when what’s really at stake is simply “employees of the State of North Carolina doing their jobs.”