John M. Becker

NC GOP Wants to Create Special Opt-Out Rights for Anti-Gay Officials

Filed By John M. Becker | October 23, 2014 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Fundie Watch, Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: Christianists, gay marriage, marriage equality, North Carolina, Phil Berger, same-sex marriage, special rights

north-carolina-map.jpgApparently unhappy that state law requires public officials to serve all members of the public, Phil Berger -- the Republican majority leader of the North Carolina Senate -- announced plans this week to introduce a bill creating a special right for anti-gay state officials to opt out of performing civil same-sex marriages.

The News & Observer reports:

Senate leader Phil Berger said Tuesday that he would introduce a bill that would protect the jobs of magistrates, registrars of deeds and their employees who refuse to officiate at weddings for members of the same-sex if their refusal is based on religious beliefs...

"The court's expansion of the freedoms of some should not violate the well-recognized constitutional rights of others," Berger said in a statement. "Complying with the new marriage law imposed by the courts should not require our state employees to compromise their core religious beliefs and First Amendment rights in order to protect their livelihoods."

Chris Sgro, executive director of the gay-rights group Equality NC, said his group would fight such a bill, and the state's business community would join in the effort.

"If Senator Berger insists on being an extremist and pushing unconstitutional legislation, we will be fully prepared to fight this at the legislature in tandem with the business community."

More, after the break.

Berger's bill comes after at least two magistrates -- agents of the state whose responsibilities include performing civil marriages -- have resigned rather than complying with the law and performing marriages for same-sex couples. One of them, John Kallam Jr., is a magistrate in Berger's home county of Rockingham.

The state has warned magistrates that if they do not follow the law and treat same-sex couples equally, they are violating their oaths of office and face suspension or dismissal from their state jobs.

phil-berger-north-carolina.jpgAlong with magistrates, Berger's proposal would exempt registrars of deeds, whose offices issue marriage licenses and whose employees can perform weddings, from having to carry out those civic duties for same-sex couples if they claim doing so goes against their personal religious views.

Chris Brook, the ACLU of North Carolina's legal director, rejected Berger's proposal as flagrantly unconstitutional. "[Their argument] doesn't hold any water," Brook told the Charlotte Observer. "We're talking about state actors carrying out state job responsibilities."

Brook also noted that some public officials made the same argument in the 1970s about interracial marriage, claiming that their religious views should give them a right to refuse to issue a license or perform a civil ceremony for a mixed-race couple. And we all know how that turned out.

Nonetheless, equality opponents are pushing ahead: the North Carolina Values Coalition, which spearheaded the successful 2012 effort to enshrine marriage discrimination in the state constitution, sent an email to registrars last weekend (falsely) claiming that they could refuse to issue licenses to same-sex couples if they cited "their First Amendment right not to violate their religious beliefs."

Advocates of LGBT civil rights should expect many more such efforts in other states as marriage equality continues is inexorable spread from sea to shining sea. And we must fight vigilantly against them -- because whether we're talking about marriage or other equally important areas like employment and public accommodations, an "equality" that allows the religious rights of bigots to trump the right of LGBT people, couples, and families to equal treatment under the law isn't actually "equality" at all.

Photo of Rep. Phil Berger via the North Carolina General Assembly.

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