Outward

North Carolina Passes Law Allowing Magistrates to Refuse to Marry Same-Sex Couples

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, whose veto was just overridden.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On Thursday, the North Carolina House of Representatives overrode Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto of a new bill that allows magistrates to refuse to marry any couple if they have a “sincerely held religious objection.” The Senate already overrode the veto, meaning the bill is now law. In addition to exempting magistrates, the measure permits registers of deeds to refuse to issue marriage licenses to any couple on religious grounds.

Although the North Carolina law appears to mirror Indiana’s notorious “religious liberty” measure, it’s really more disturbing. The Indiana law allowed “compelling governmental interests” to trump religious objections—but the North Carolina law has no such limiting principle. From now on, a magistrate or register of deeds need only assert that serving a gay couple (or interracial couple, or interfaith couple) violates her religious beliefs. As soon as she does, she will be allowed to refuse to do her job.

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The law has another rather disturbing provision. A magistrate or register of deeds may wait until the moment a gay couple walks into his office to claim his religious exemption. Once he does, he is automatically excused from performing any marriages, or issuing any marriage licenses, for at least six months. But helping North Carolinians get married is a key component of these civil servants’ (publicly funded) jobs. Their exemption from any marriage services will place a serious burden on their colleagues who are free from religious prejudice. Moreover, the law mandates that at least one magistrate willing to perform marriages be present in every jurisdiction. If every magistrate in a given jurisdiction claims the exemption, the state may have to spend a significant amount of money hiring new magistrates to perform this basic task.

These features make the measure not just a civil rights catastrophe but also an administrative nightmare. The North Carolina judiciary is now saddled with a law that lets taxpayer-funded civil servants refuse to do their job. Anti-gay magistrates will have their bias rewarded by getting paid to not do work. If this is the right’s response to same-sex marriage, it is an ugly, expensive way to retaliate against equality. 

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