A chief district judge in Alamance County is continuing to push back on North Carolina’s recognition of same-sex marriage, as administrative officials for the state’s court system tell him and other county judges that magistrates must perform weddings for same-sex couples or face losing their jobs.
This week, Chief District Court Judge Jim Roberson has defended magistrates who say they won’t perform legal, civil same-sex marriages.
He’s asking for a “compromise” that allows some magistrates to opt out of their mandated legal obligations.
“I highly respect people’s legitimate, deep-seated, consciously held religious beliefs. I also highly respect people’s individual rights. Trying to balance those two is where my goal is right now,” Roberson told The Burlington Times-News on Wednesday, “finding that balance where we can assure the public the law will be followed and marriage ceremonies will be performed as requested.”
The pushback in Alamance comes after a Pasquotank County magistrate in eastern North Carolina refused to marry a gay couple on Monday. Additionally, Alamance County Register of Deeds Webster Hugh as said “about half” of his employees won’t issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
On Tuesday, a memo from the legal counsel of North Carolina’s Administrative Office of the Courts told magistrates and judges across the state who refuse to carry out their official duties would be in violation of their oaths of office, which could result in suspension, dismissal or misdemeanor criminal charges.
“If a valid marriage license [is] issued … it is a statutory duty of the magistrate to conduct the marriage between the persons named in the license in the same manner as the magistrate would conduct any other marriage,” the memo from general counsel Pamela Weaver best reads. “A failure to do so would be a violation of the U.S. Constitution under the federal ruling, and would constitute a violation of the oath and a failure to perform a duty of the office.”
Best’s memo continued: “For these reasons, all magistrates must treat same-sex marriages for which a marriage license has been issued by the Register of Deeds the same way that marriages between a man and a woman are scheduled and conducted.”
Advocates with state LGBT advocacy group Equality North Carolina have been monitoring efforts to discriminate against LGBT couples in Alamance, Pasquotank and elsewhere.
They say Roberson is confusing an issue on which there is no legal debate.
“While there should be no confusion, Judge Roberson’s statements make it appear that certain magistrates he supervises who object to performing same-sex marriage ceremonies for religious reasons will not be required to do so, in violation of that law,” Equality NC Executive Director Chris Sgro said in a statement to qnotes.
Sgro continued: “While we respect a person’s religious freedom and views, same-sex couples seeking non-religious ceremonies in taxpayer-funded state buildings by state officials who receive salaries from our tax dollars should not be put in the position to be refused by anyone working for the state of North Carolina. We pledge to work diligently with local, state, and federal officials to assure that all state employees, including those in North Carolina’s 100 counties, are upholding the laws of our state.”
Roberson’s remarks seem straight out of the religious right’s political playbook.
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.”
Rockingham magistrate resigns
On Thursday, a magistrate in Rockingham County resigned his office over the issue of same-sex marriage, citing his personal religious beliefs.
“When I took my oath of office, I understood I would be required to perform weddings and have done so throughout my tenure,” Rockingham Magistrate John G. Kallam, Jr., wrote in his resignation letter. “I did not however take that oath with any understanding that I would be required to marry same sex couples. It is my personal belief and a position of my Christian faith that doing so would desecrate a holy Institution established by God Himself.”
Kallam added: “Since performing marriages is an integral part of being a Magistrate and in light of recent changes in North Carolina law. I can no longer fulfill my oath of office in good faith.”
And, he finished his resignation letter reminding citizens to “fear God,” writing: “I am reminded of the last words of David who said, ‘He that rules over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God’. Where there is no ‘fear of God’ there can be no justice!”
Greensboro’s News & Record reports that Rockingham County Chief District Court Judge Fred Wilkins confirmed Kallam’s resignation. Wilkins further said he would have fulfilled his own oath and suspended Kallam if he had refused to marry a same-gender couple.