CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Two North Carolina Democrats are facing criticism for their votes in favor of a bill passed by the state Senate on Wednesday. The bill allows magistrates and registers of deeds to opt out of performing civil marriage services due to a “sincerely held religious objection,” and opponents say the legislation holds the potential to discriminate against LGBT couples and sets a dangerous precedent and lead to widespread discrimination against other minorities..
Mecklenburg County Democratic Sen. Joel Ford and Cumberland County Democratic Sen. Ben Clark were the only two Democrats to break with their party and vote for the legislation.
State and local officers with the LGBT Democrats of North Carolina, a caucus of the state party, are taking both to task.
“I have been hearing from LGBT Democrats and allies from across the state who are outraged at this blatant bigotry and direct attack on the LGBT community,” Ryan Butler, president of the LGBT Democrats of North Carolina, said in a message to supporters. “The LGBT Democrats will not stand idly by while anyone, including those within our own party, fosters discrimination and prejudice. We will continue to speak out and condemn these attacks on marriage equality.”
Cameron Joyce, president of the local LGBT Democrats of Mecklenburg County, echoed similar remarks.
“The LGBT Democrats of Mecklenburg County will not be able to support any Mecklenburg County representative who actively works against our rights and protection,” Joyce said publicly on Wednesday. “We know where you stand on LGBT rights and without a change in heart and a public apology for your vote today, we will not support your re-election.”
The bill, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and Sen. Buck Newton (R-Johnston, Nash, Wilson), passed the Senate on Wednesday 32-16. The legislation was promised by State Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger last fall, after federal courts overturned the state’s anti-LGBT marriage amendment. Berger introduced his bill the first full day of legislative work. A broader, more far-reaching discriminatory bill is widely expected to be introduced this session, as well.
Two Republicans, Mecklenburg County’s Jeff Tarte and Wake County’s John Alexander, broke with their party to vote against the bill. Tarte said on the Senate floor his vote against the bill an effort to “uphold the rule of law” and “about trying to do the right thing,” despite his own personal religious convictions regarding marriage.
But both Ford and Clark agreed with Berger and Newton, saying the bill strikes a “balance” between “religious freedom” and the rights of LGBT couples.
“I’ve listened carefully to the passionate arguments put forth on both sides of the aisle,” Clark told the Senate after the body voted. “I’m deeply committed to equal rights and fair treatment for all North Carolinians. I’m persuaded that Senate Bill 2 accomplishes two important tasks. … Senate Bill 2 ensures the rights of all couples to be married while protecting the religious freedoms of individuals with sincerely held religious beliefs.”
In a short statement to qnotes, Ford said his vote was for “individual freedom,” adding, “I supported this bill because it respects an individual’s personal religious beliefs and it also protects same-sex couples’ right to marry.”
Ford is also drawing criticism for his retweets of comments from bill sponsor Buck Newton, who had said during floor debate, “You’re born in your race. I don’t know about sexual orientation.”
Ford didn’t respond to a question on whether or not he thinks discrimination based on sexual orientation should be judged with less scrutiny than discrimination based on other characteristics.
The LGBT Democrats of North Carolina have been encouraging their members to tell Ford and Clark about their disappointment.
Not the first time Ford has waffled
Ford’s vote for the discriminatory bill on Wednesday isn’t the first time he’s waffled on LGBT equality.
In 2010, while still chair of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party, Ford appeared on a local, weekly public affairs show where he seemed to be opposed to repeal of the U.S. military’s anti-gay “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
I’m not sure what was wrong with the old policy,” Ford answered NBC Charlotte “FlashPoint” host Dave Wagner. “I’m a little surprised that the president is going out on this particular initiative.”
Wagner noted President Barack Obama’s move on DADT was a “campaign promise,” to which Joel then replied, “I understand a campaign promise but again, personally, I don’t agree with it and I’m trying to figure out what was wrong with the old policy.”
Ford continued, “I think it is more political than anything else. It’s unfortunate that we have to go through these political issues when we are dealing with the men and women in uniform.”
After the show, Ford backtracked on his remarks when asked about them by qnotes, saying he had a better understanding of the issues after being provided fact sheets and other figures regarding the old policy, which was eventually repealed in 2010 and fully effective in 2011.
“I understand better now the need for repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” Ford said at the time. “Clearly there is a need for a change. Any sensible human being…recognizes the need for a change in the policy.”