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Op-ed: Are You a Public Servant? Then Serve the Public

Op-ed: Are You a Public Servant? Then Serve the Public


Why 'religious liberty' laws protecting public employees from accommodating LGBT people are truly problematic.

If you're a public servant, you don't get to choose which parts of your job you will do and which you won't. If an action falls within your job responsibilities and scope of duties, you have to do it unless you've been granted an accommodation due to a disability. That's how I've always understood things.

But apparently, some North Carolina magistrates and clerks in county register of deeds offices find it unconscionable that they be asked to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples now that Amendment One, the 2012 voter-approved law prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying, has been struck down. (A federal judge ruled it unconstitutional in the fall, after which same-sex couples began marrying throughout the state, and some magistrates and clerks resigned in protest.)

Rather than do the "honorable" thing and resign from their positions because the thought of marrying the same-sex couples in front of them apparently appalls them, some magistrates and clerks contend that their First Amendment rights are being infringed upon now that equal marriage has become the law in North Carolina. Ridiculous, right?

Not to our legislators. Just this week, the North Carolina Senate passed a bill, by a vote of 32-16, that would allow magistrates and clerks to opt out of performing same-sex marriage ceremonies if they feel that doing so would conflict with their religious freedom. It now goes to the state House. Although the bill would prevent these magistrates and clerks from performing any marriage ceremonies, even for heterosexual couples, let's not buy into the notion that the proposed law is in any way neutral. It's clearly targeted at LGB North Carolinians and is meant to be one more barrier to realizing our constitutional rights.

Backers of this bill cleverly frame the issue at hand as one of competing rights. Well, they emphasize the magistrates' First Amendment rights to religious expression and freedom of speech. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger had the gumption to state, "We're not saying the First Amendment outweighs any other rights that exist. What we're saying is there should be an accommodation when there is a conflict between rights."

For sure, Berger and other backers still don't believe that gay and lesbian North Carolinians have a right to civil marriage. Knowing that the "train has left the station" on this social issue, however, they have switched tactics in order to achieve their desired outcome: If not the outright denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples, at least the symbolic reinforcement of heteronormativity as preferred and natural and homosexuality as deviant. They really do want LBGTQ people to be deprived of citizenship rights and the other recognition that comes from being accorded such rights.

Probably even more pressing to the radical right and Christian conservatives across the country is to win favor for the notion that public servants' religious and speech rights might be compromised by their having to perform their work obligations. Even workers at private and nonprofit organizations, such as pharmacies and hospitals, should be given a "religious liberty" exemption from providing contraception to unmarried women if it conflicts with their religious beliefs, they contend.

Yes, public servants, like everyone else, should be free to practice religion as they see fit and speak freely -- in their off time. Admittedly, we live in a moment when traditional distinctions (e.g., work and home and work and leisure) are fuzzier than ever. But unless the magistrates in question have absolutely no free time in which to carry out their religious and speech activities, they have no right to contend that they should be able to do so when they're at work. We don't lose our rights when we put on our symbolic work clothes. But free expression is one of the trade-offs for most workers, who agree, in varying ways, to represent their organizations and speak accordingly when they're on the clock.

Ironically, this bill and others like it are advancing while our legislators, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, and their support groups are keen on preventing (some) public workers from exercising free speech and academic freedom. These entities' unrelenting efforts to close UNC-Chapel Hill's Poverty and Civil Rights Centers fully illustrate this point.

The carefully crafted claims of board of governors member Steven Long (e.g., that the Center of Civil Rights staff are biased and partisan) slant the truth. But Long's claims seem reasonable on the surface (public workers shouldn't be politicking on the public's dime) while also appealing to many people's racism, anti-intellectualism, and desire to stick it to educators. Hopefully, Long, Berger, and others like them won't win in the long run.

TARA KACHGAL is the head of the GLBT Interest Group of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. She has a Ph.D. in mass communication and lives in Chapel Hill, N.C.

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Tara Kachgal