RALEIGH, N.C. — Members of the public and advocates weighed in Wednesday during a state House committee hearing on a bill that would allow magistrates and registers of deeds to opt out of performing civil marriage services based on their personal religious objections.
Senate Bill 2, which passed the state Senate last week, was heard in the House’s Judiciary I Committee. Several members of the public and advocates had signed up to speak, resulting in Chairman Leo Daughtry’s decision to hear comments and delay action on the bill.
Bill co-sponsor Sen. Buck Newton (R-Johnston, Nash, Wilson) was the first to speak, striking a more moderate tone than his fiery sermon-like remarks during the Senate debate last week. He stressed that the bill would protect individuals’ religious liberties.
“The First Amendment has been with us since the creation of our republic,” he told the committee. “Our own [state] constitution is very clear about matters of conscience and religious belief in our state. … So the task falls to us to balance these things.”
Several speakers addressed the committee, including advocates from the ACLU of North Carolina and Equality NC.
“The ACLU is deeply troubled by Senate Bill 2,” said Sarah Preston, policy director for the state chapter of the national civil liberties group. “It should not be the policy of the General Assembly to allow government officials to pick and choose which job duties they wish to perform.”
The magistrates bill 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.
Several magistrates and registers of deeds had resigned or spoken out against the ruling, saying that forcing them to issue marriage licenses to same-gender couples or perform their civil wedding ceremonies would violate their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Preston pushed back against the idea that government officials should have the right to use personal faith as justification for opting out of official duties.
“Magistrates do not sanctify marriages and they never have,” she said. “They perform civil ceremonies and shouldn’t have the ability to deny that service to anyone. … Under the law, no church can be compelled to perform a marriage outside of their faith tradition. The government is different. Government should treat all equally.”
The Rev. Terrance Leathers, pastor of Mt. Vernon Christian Church in Clayton, echoed Preston’s remarks. Admitting his own personal reluctance on same-gender marriage, he said he nonetheless believed the government should serve all people equally.
“This is a journey for me, however, I know houses of worship and clergy have the constitutionally protected freedom to determine which marriages they will or won’t perform in their faith traditions,” he said. “However, you are the government. You must care for and address the personhood and rights of all people that live and work in North Carolina. … You may agonize over it, you might even dislike it personally, but as government officials, do the right thing. Do not pass this bill.”
Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality NC, the statewide LGBT advocacy group, called the bill a “slippery slope” and said it creates “bad precedent.”
But other speakers urged the committee to pass the legislation through to the full House.
The Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, said individuals’ rights must be protected.
“It’s hard to believe that we have arrived at a time when such proposed legislation is needed in our state, but, nonetheless, here we are,” said Creech, whose group is a state affiliate of the national anti-LGBT hate group American Family Association. “Some of these magistrates and registers of deeds are concerned that they are being forced to perform what they believe is not a marriage.”
John Rustin, of the NC Family Policy Council, also spoke in favor of the legislation. The council is a state affiliate of the national anti-LGBT hate group Family Research Council.
The Judiciary I Committee meets each Wednesday. Committee members did not debate the bill and it’s not clear when the committee will take it up again.
A broader, more far-reaching discriminatory bill is widely expected to be introduced this session, as well.