The leader of North Carolina’s state Senate said Tuesday he will seek to pass new anti-LGBT legislation in next year’s session, following the legalization of marriage for same-sex couples in the state.
Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger said his legislation will exempt certain government employees from fulfilling their duties if doing so “would violate their core religious beliefs.”
Berger’s announcement came at a press conference and rally in Rockingham County, where a magistrate resigned last week in protest of same-sex marriages. The magistrate, John G. Kallam, Jr., joined Berger and state House Rep. Bert Jones at the rally.
North Carolina’s Administrative Office of the Courts has told local judges and magistrates that they must perform same-sex marriages as they would for any other couple. Refusing to do so would violate their oaths and could result in suspension, dismissal or misdemeanor criminal charges.
Berger has encouraged local officials in Rockingham County and across the state to continue to seek what he calls a “compromise,” allowing officials like Kallam to refuse their duties while passing them on to other magistrates or employees.
Berger’s new legislation will seek to allow magistrates, registers of deeds and their employees to pass over issuing same-sex marriage licenses or officiating at their civil ceremonies “so that no one is forced to abandon their religious beliefs to save their jobs,” Berger said.
“Let’s be clear, North Carolina is now required to recognize same-sex marriages as a result of federal court decisions. As long as those decisions are in place, North Carolina officials should ensure that we comply with the law,” Berger added. But, legal decisions striking down the marriage amendment have changed the landscape in courthouses across the state. Complying with this new law does not require that North Carolina ignore or violate the First Amendment or existing laws protecting the religious freedoms, beliefs and practices of our citizens or our public employees. And, the failure of the court system to strike the appropriate balance will further divide the public and cause unnecessary and harmful additional conflict.”
Berger said he’ll introduce the bill when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.
LGBT advocates in the state are countering Berger’s position, saying government officials tasked with providing government services to citizens shouldn’t be allowed to pick and choose which citizens they will serve.
“The issue at hand is not about individuals’ rights to freedom of religion and Berger, as an attorney, should understand the law well enough to know that,” Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality North Carolina, said in a release. “The issue at hand is a matter of employees of the state of North Carolina doing their jobs.”
Sgro and his group called “Berger and his extreme, anti-LGBT special interests” an “unprecedented overreach that encourages state employees to only follow the laws that they support.”
Additionally, Berger’s attempts could lead to other, more pervasive anti-LGBT legislation.
In recent years, conservatives have attempted to pass so-called religious freedom “protection” or “restoration” acts in several states, including Kansas and Arizona. In some versions of the legislation, including a proposed version in North Carolina’s last legislative session, governments would be prohibited from “substantially burden[-ing] a person’s free exercise of religion.” That would leave LGBT people virtually cut off from any legal recourse if a businesses or even a government official were to discriminate against LGBT people or opt out of official duties.
Similar issues were played out by the U.S. Supreme Court this year, which upheld Hobby Lobby’s right to opt out of contraceptive coverage mandated under the Affordable Care Act, due to the “sincerely held religious beliefs of the companies’ owners.”
One other magistrate in North Carolina has also resigned his position in protest of same-sex marriages.