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North Carolina Senators Vote to Give Clerks 'Right to Discriminate'

North Carolina Senators Vote to Give Clerks 'Right to Discriminate'

The North Carolina Senate approved a bill Wednesday morning that would allow state and county officials to refuse to issue marriage licenses or perform same-sex weddings on the basis of "sincerely held religious objections," reports North Carolina LGBT outlet Q Notes. 

Senate Bill 2 would allow magistrates and assistant and deputy registers of deeds to "recuse themselves from performing marriage ceremonies" due to "any sincerely held religious objections," according to the latest version of the bill published on the state legislature's website. 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advantage of the new law would be barred from performing any marriage ceremonies for six months or until the recusal is rescinded in writing.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 it becomes law, SB 2 would protect any of the listed public officials from legal action regarding their refusal to perform marriage ceremonies, amending existing law that defines such dereliction of duty as a Class 1 misdemeanor that requires an employee be "removed from office."

After more than two hours of debate, North Carolina's Republican-controlled Senate passed the bill on a bipartisan vote of 32-16, reports Q Notes. Two Republican senators voted against the bill, while two Democrats voted in favor, according to Q Notes. The bill now heads to the state House, also controlled by Republicans. 

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. Indeed, much of the Senate debate focused on whether state employees should be able to decide who they serve based on their own religious beliefs, according to Q Notes' report.

"There’s not rationale to limit discrimination to gay people," Democratic Sen. Josh Stein said in opposition to the bill. "It could open the floodgates to any [discrimination] that offends someone’s belief. If 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?"

"Passing this bill will embolden other public servants to choose who and when they perform their job," added Stein. "They will choose to deny to serve the very people whose taxes it is who pays their salaries."

"This discriminatory bill treats gay and lesbian couples as second-class citizens and distorts the true meaning of religious freedom," said Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, in a Wednesday statement. "Once again our legislature has demonstrated a willful disregard for the basic concept of treating all North Carolinians fairly. Like Amendment One [which banned same-sex marriage], I believe this bill will not stand the test of time because it is rooted in animus."

But supporters of the bill argued the legislation was necessary to stop "a couple of judges in black robes in Richmond" from imposing their views of marriage on the entire state. 

The bill's cosponsor, Republican Sen. Buck Newton, pointed to last October's Supreme Court action — which ultimately helped bring marriage equality to North Carolina — as proof that religious liberty was being threatened in the state. 

"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," Newton said. "People should not have to choose between their faith and their jobs."

Newton also rejected arguments from opponents who contended that sexual orientation is an innate characteristic, like race. "You're born into your race," Newton said, according to Q Notes. "I don't know about sexual orientation."

The North Carolina bill — one of the first introduced in this year's legislative session — is one of several similar efforts nationwide in conservative states seeking to roll back marriage equality. A slew of bills in Oklahoma seek to marginalize LGBT people by defunding any state agency that recognizes same-sex marriages, enshrining unscientific efforts to "pray away the gay" as a protected practice in state law, requiring transgender people to out themselves when obtaining a marriage license, and granting businesses and individuals a "license to discriminate" for any reason — religious or otherwise. 

Earlier this week, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson let a bill become law that will invalidate any existing local nondiscrimination ordinances that protect LGBT people on a broader scale than state law. Because Arkansas does not recognize sexual orientation or gender identity as protected characteristics, the law effectively makes it legal to discriminate against LGBT people, even in cities that have voted to implement more stringent protections. 

Mississippi was the first state to pass a "license to discriminate" bill into law, when Gov. Phil Bryant signed the Mississippi Religious Freedom and Restoration Act last April. Like the pending legislation in Oklahoma, the Mississippi law allows businesses and individuals to deny services to anyone, if serving that person would "substantially burden" the individual's "religious exercise."

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