“I feel like it’s the same thing, whether you are gay or interracial, a Jew and a Gentile. They have no right to decide who you marry. I felt profound when I heard the officials on TV refusing to marry gay people because I felt like I was reliving those days all over again.”
That’s what Carol Ann Person recently told The High Point Enterprise, in an article recounting the time, in 1976, when two Forsyth County magistrates refused to preside over her civil marriage ceremony to her husband, Thomas Roger Person.
The reason for the rejection? Carol is white and Thomas is black.
The justification? The magistrate’s “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
A passage from Scripture — Genesis 6:20: “Of fowls after their kind, and of cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the earth after his kind” — was used by one of the magistrates to justify his position. The verse, he said, meant that people of different races couldn’t marry.
The Persons sued in federal court and, in 1977, won. The reasons for their legal victory are the same as those used by those opposed to Senate Bill 2 today — government officials, as agents of the state, must serve all citizens without regard to their own personal beliefs, biases or prejudices or risk running afoul of equal protection of the law. The 1977 court even compelled one of the magistrates to perform the marriage they had once refused to officiate.
Democratic state Sen. Joel Ford doesn’t see these clear facts or history the same way. On Wednesday, he voted for Senate Bill 2, which, if it becomes law, would allow magistrates and registers of deeds to opt out of performing civil marriage-related services based simply on their own personal religious prejudices — the exact same kind of justification once used to deny marriage, right here in North Carolina, to interracial couples.
All of this creates an important question for Ford: would Ford have similarly supported such a bill in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s supporting the personal religious prejudices of racists?
In an interview with Qcitymetro.com, Ford justified his vote by saying that Senate Bill 2 “strikes a delicate balance between religious freedom and protecting individual rights.”
But that’s not true. What the bill actually does is place the religious sentiment of an individual before the people’s rights to free, fair and equitable access to government services. That’s not equality, that’s special rights — ironically the same thing opponents of LGBT people say we want.
In the interview, Ford goes on to say that he doesn’t personally believe gay couples should have marriage rights, though he won’t use government to stand in the way. Further, it seems he might even think that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation should be judged with less scrutiny than discrimination based on other characteristics like race.
These are unfortunate positions, and I’m afraid they’ve clouded Ford’s ability as a lawmaker to see the intent behind Senate Bill 2 — the targeting of LGBT people. Republican leaders in the Senate have been quite clear, for months before and during debate on the floor, that this bill is in direct reaction to LGBT equality. There’s clear animus here, but Ford dismisses it.
And he also seems blinded when it comes to all the possible, even if unintended, effects of the bill.
“I’m not in Raleigh to legislate what-ifs,” Ford told Qcitymetro.com.
What? You don’t think about the possible ramifications of the laws you’re drafting and passing? You don’t think about the possible ways in which legislation you approve might affect the daily lives of your constituents?
Ford’s Democratic colleague, Sen. Josh Stein, who voted against the bill, has thought of the possible effects — up to and including discrimination against interracial couples.
Ford also told Qcitymetro.com that he would never support discriminating on the basis of race, but the facts of this bill make Ford’s position impossible. Whether he likes it or not, he’s voted for a bill that has the potential to do the very thing he says he wouldn’t support. Republican committee staff have admitted as much, answering in response to Sen. Jeff Jackson’s question regarding interracial marriage discrimination that the bill does not specify what kinds of reasons can or cannot qualify for the legislation’s religious objection.
We all know too well that prejudice still runs deep, whether it’s directed toward racial minorities, religious minorities or sexual minorities. Under Senate Bill 2, it would be entirely possible for government officials to decline to perform marriages between white and black people, Christian and non-Christian people and marriages including a previously married/divorced partner, or, for that matter, on the basis of any other possibly conceivable prejudice. All a government official must do is claim the objection, no questions asked. In effect, Senate Bill 2 ensures that personal religious prejudices and personal whims of bias will trump the rule of law upon which our republic has depended for offering greater and greater equality to her citizens.
Ford counters that the bill provides measures to safe guard access. These small tokens won’t be of much help in rural areas or in counties where all magistrates might make religiously prejudiced refusals of some sort. When the chief district judge has to do the duties of several or all objecting magistrates in his district, the burden of this law will become clear. Couples, simply trying to access their rights under law, will be made to jump through hoops or wait longer than necessary for the services legally available to them.
Nearly 50 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down interracial marriage laws and rejected religiously inspired prejudices that had been used to justify them. Federal courts similarly rejected religion-as-discrimination in the case of the Persons’ marriage in 1977.
North Carolina’s Republicans, with the help of Sen. Ford, have boldly and proudly brought these embarrassing days of our prejudiced and oppressive history roaring into the present.
[Ed. Note — This writer is a constituent in Ford’s Senate District 38.]