One of the first pieces of legislation introduced in North Carolina's new legislative session is a bill that would allow public officials to refuse to perform marriages for same-sex couples, reports Raleigh TV station WRAL.
Senate Bill 2, titled "Magistrates Recusal of Civil Ceremonies," would allow magistrates and registers of deeds to refuse to perform a legal marriage ceremony "due to sincerely held religious beliefs." Upon written notification of a religious objection, public officials who take advantage of the new law would be barred from performing any marriage ceremonies for six months, or until the recusal is rescinded in writing.
If passed, Senate Bill 2 would protect any of the listed public officials from legal action regarding their refusal to perform marriage ceremonies, amending existing statutory law that defines such dereliction of duty as a Class 1 misdemeanor that requires an employee be "removed from office."
"This bill offers a reasonable solution to protect the First Amendment rights of magistrates and register of deeds employees while complying with the marriage law ordered by the courts — so they are not forced to abandon their religious beliefs to save their jobs," Senate president pro tem Phil Berger, the bill's lead sponsor, said in a statement.
The bill also reframes the duties of magistrates — who perform marriage ceremonies, in addition to administering oaths, issuing subpoenas, taking affidavits and a host of other procedural duties — as the collective responsibly of the office, rather than of an individual public official. Because of this, the bill proposes a solution should all magistrates in a given office recuse themselves and refuse to perform marriage ceremonies.
"If no magistrate is available to perform a ceremony, the chief district court judge would have to ask the state Administrative Office of the Courts to send in a magistrate to perform ceremonies," reports WRAL.
The local news outlet reports that the bill was conceived in response to several magistrates quitting their jobs rather than perform marriages for same-sex couples after marriage equality came to North Carolina in October. Berger announced his intention to back such a bill shortly thereafter, while continuing to seek a review of the pro-equality court ruling.
Although the bill does not directly mention same-sex couples or marriage equality, LGBT advocates and Democrats in the state legislature were quick to note that equality opponents are increasingly using claims of "religious freedom" as cover to legally discriminate against same-sex couples.
"In this nation, we as citizens do not have to pass any government employee's personal religious test in order to receive a government service," Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Democrat, told WRAL. "Whether it's a prosecutor policeman, magistrate or mailman, government offices that are open to the public must be open to everyone on the same terms."
Lawmakers in conservative states that have recently been forced to adopt marriage equality by court order have already started filing a litany of legislative efforts to sidestep the constitutional requirement for equal treatment under the law. In Oklahoma, notoriously antigay state Rep. Sally Kern introduced three out of eight pieces of legislation regarding LGBT equality, outlining efforts to cut off state funds from agencies recognizing same-sex marriages, require transgender people to out themselves when applying for a marriage license, allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT clientele, and enshrine in law a "right" for parents to force their minor children into so-called ex-gay therapy, which has been denounced as harmful and ineffective by every major medical and mental health organization in the country.
These bills in North Carolina and Oklahoma are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to new anti-LGBT legislation that will be considered by state legislatures across the country in 2015, as a new Republican majority takes hold in several states. Laws that could impact LGBT people have already been introduced in Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming, reports the Washington Blade.