Alamance judge changes course: all magistrates to perform marriages

Anti-LGBT legal group encourages registers of deeds to defy law, refuse to issue marriage licenses

A North Carolina judge has reversed course after defending some magistrates who did not want to perform same-gender marriages due to their personal religious beliefs.

Alamance County Chief District Court Judge Jim Roberson released a statement Friday stating all magistrates in his county will be required to perform all the official duties of their positions, including marriages for all couples.

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“To provide clarification in light of recent court decisions regarding the marriage law in North Carolina, all magistrates serving in Alamance County are required, as a part of their official duties, to perform marriage ceremonies for any and all eligible couples under North Carolina law presenting themselves for marriage,” Roberson’s statement read.

The debate ignited soon after federal district court judges overturned North Carolina’s anti-LGBT constitutional ban on same-gender marriages — one last Friday from Western U.S. District Court Judge Max Cogburn and one this week from Middle U.S. District Court Judge William Osteen.

Roberson had said he’d wanted a compromise.

“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.”

A Tuesday memo from North Carolina’s Administrative Office of the Courts had made it clear all magistrates must perform the obligations and requirements of their jobs.

“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 read. “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.”

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Statewide LGBT advocates praised the positive developments in Alamance County.

“From the very beginning Equality NC’s expectations have remained as clear and firm as the judicial orders from Judges Osteen and Cogburn: the entire state of North Carolina is enjoined from enforcing Amendment One and all gay and lesbian couples seeking marriages now in North Carolina should be treated by state officials with the same dignity and respect as the couples before them,” Equality NC Executive Director Chris Sgro said in a statement.

Sgro added: “Today in Alamance County, Chief District Judge Jim Roberson fulfilled those expectations and took just and legal action by mandating that all magistrates working in Alamance, as is true in all 100 counties in this state, conduct marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples or face immediate consequences.”

The advocacy group says they’ll continue to monitor potential instances of anti-LGBT marriage discrimination, but they caution that such instances have thus far “been isolated.”

Meanwhile, anti-LGBT legal advocates with the rightwing Alliance Defending Freedom are encouraging North Carolina registers of deeds to break their oaths and defy the law in their own legal memo. Registers, they said, do not have to issue marriage licenses if doing so conflicts with their religious beliefs.

“These fringe groups are proffering a dangerous argument that is meant to encourage state employees to violate a federal court order, their oaths of office, and the rights of LGBT North Carolinians,” Sgro responded in a statement.

“This has nothing to do with personal religious beliefs,” Sgro added. “I fully support individual’s rights to their beliefs. This is about doing a job. Good, hardworking North Carolinians know that every job has requirements. These are state employees and it is their job to issue licenses to same-sex couples and conduct same-sex marriages the same as they would for opposite-sex couples. This memo contains intentionally misleading information.”

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Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.