By M.H. Cavanaugh
Christian Action League
March 6, 2015
RALEIGH – Flanked by the news media, a House Judiciary Panel heard public comment Wednesday on SB 2 – Magistrates Recusal for Civil Ceremonies. The measure, which allows magistrates and register of deeds to opt out of performing any marriages whenever they hold a sincerely held religious objection, passed the Senate last week.
There were nine speakers. Five spoke against the measure, two spoke in favor, while two declined to take a position and wished only to express concerns about the law’s logistics on county offices if passed.
Committee Chairman, Rep. Leo Daughtry (R-Johnston), introduced the speakers and urged each to come to the podium to accommodate the media.
Opponents of SB 2 argued similar themes. Lorraine Ljunggren, an Episcopalian Priest from St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Raleigh, Rev. Terrance Leathers, a black Baptist minister from Mt. Vernon Baptist Church in Clayton, Sarah Preston, from the American Civil Liberties Union, and Chris Sgro, from Equality N.C. – all said they believed the measure discriminated against the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community.
Both Ljunnggren and Preston said they believed the bill created a slippery slope. Referencing last week’s inclement weather, Ljunnggren bumptiously said, “I believe Senate Bill 2 sets us on a slope far more slippery than the I 540 and Aviation Parkway Overfly did on Sunday.” Preston, in the dictatorial tone typical of the ACLU argued, “It should not be the policy of the General Assembly to allow government employees to pick and choose what duties they wish to perform. What’s the next category of government official that will refuse to do part of their job?
Ljunngren, Leathers, Preston, and Sgro, presumptuously accused opponents of the bill, as well as magistrates with religious objections to performing a same-sex marriage of failing to properly differentiate between civil marriage and a marriage sanctified by the church. They argued no clergy or church was being forced to perform a same-sex marriage, but civil servants must be willing to perform all duties required by the state.
Tony Cope, owner of Myriad Media, said bills like SB 2 were bad for recruiting businesses to North Carolina because executives from larger companies were often gay or lesbian and perceived the state hostile to them. Cope, however, gave no substantive examples to show ways such laws actually harmed business, only offered his alleged personal experiences.
Two register of deeds also spoke. Jiff Thigpen, Guilford County Register of Deeds, and Wayne Rash, Caldwell County Register of Deeds, as well as director of the North Carolina Association of Register of Deeds, expressed concerns about the law’s implementation.
Thigpen said allowing magistrates to opt-out of performing marriages could create staffing issues and urged lawmakers to slow down and consider some of the practical implications.
Rash said the Association of Register of Deeds did not have a position on the measure, but felt lawmakers should offer a provision that would alleviate liability if a Register was not available to issue licenses.
John Rustin, president of the North Carolina Family Policy Council and Dr. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League argued in favor of the bill.
“SB 2 is a very reasonable and balanced approach to dealing with a very specific circumstance that we have in North Carolina. The statutes that outline the duties and functions of register of deeds and magistrates…are set by the North Carolina General Assembly,” Rustin told the committee. “They are under your purview and it is perfectly appropriate if you deem it necessary to amend those laws.”
Dr. Creech sought to address some of the previous assertions made by opponents of the bill. While opponents argued no one’s religious liberties were actually being infringed upon by the current legalization of same-gender marriage, Creech said they were failing to recognize the full scope of the “free exercise clause” of the First Amendment.
“The freedom to practice one’s religion doesn’t simply mean that one can believe whatever religious tenants he wishes in the solitude of his own home or in the privacy of his religious organization’s established place of worship, but it means that one can practice freely the teachings of their faith in public, in the public square, without the authorization or endorsement of the state, or fear of its reprisal,” said Creech.
He added, “Our tradition has always been not to interfere with the practice of religion, and, if there is a law that, perhaps, is deemed necessary to interfere, then the state is to use the most restrictive means possible for achieving a compelling state interest, and if an exemption would avoid the religious interference, then it should be granted.”
Creech scolded the notion that civil servants who had religious objections were failing to properly differentiate between sacred and civil marriages. Instead he said the situation was, “Some of the magistrates and register of deeds are concerned that they would be forced to perform what they believe is not a marriage.”
In October, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the federal 4th Circuit Court’s decision to strike down Virginia’s marriage amendment which defined the institution as one man and one woman. Because North Carolina falls under the 4th Circuit Court’s jurisdiction, within eight days a federal district court judge from Asheville declared North Carolina’s state constitutional marriage amendment as unconstitutional. The Tar Heel state’s constitutional marriage amendment was voter approved in 2012 by a margin of 61% to 39%.
Following these rulings by the federal courts, a number of state magistrates resigned from their positions because a directive from the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) said they must perform same-sex marriages, or face suspension, removal from office, or potential criminal charges.
Senate Republicans, therefore, passed SB 2 last week with the objective of protecting the religious freedoms of state magistrates and register of deeds.
No vote was taken by the House Judiciary I Committee on Wednesday and no indication was given of when a vote would be taken by the committee.