RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — More than 30 magistrates in North Carolina have refused to perform weddings since a law went into effect allowing officials to refrain from conducting marriage-related activities.
The state court system says it’s received notices from nearly 5 percent of the state’s 670 magistrates since a law took effect in June allowing them to opt out of performing all marriages. The law exempts court officials with a “sincerely held religious objection” and is designed for those opposing gay marriage. Only Utah has a similar recusal law.
The North Carolina law also applies to some register of deeds workers. Elected officials would perform the duties as a last resort.
State Sen. Phil Berger, who sponsored the law, said it is probably preventing situations like the one in Kentucky, where a clerk has refused to issue licenses since the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in late June legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. The Kentucky clerk, Kim Davis, was ordered to jail Thursday for contempt.
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“It’s keeping folks from having to choose between their jobs and their religious beliefs,” said Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County. “I think that’s important.”
The law took effect June 11, when the veto of GOP Gov. Pat McCrory was overridden by the General Assembly.
The North Carolina law exempts magistrates and assistant and deputy register of deeds workers from carrying out all marriage ceremonies — gay and heterosexual couples — for at least six months when they notify their bosses of the religious objection. Register of deeds issue marriage licenses, while magistrates have authority to officiate marriages.
The chief District Court judge or the county register of deeds — both elected officials — would carry out marriage transactions if no one else was available. Magistrates from elsewhere willing to marry gay couples would be brought in if all area magistrates recused themselves.
County register of deeds offices reported about a dozen recusals shortly after the law took effect, according to the North Carolina Association of Registers of Deeds.
The Administrative Office of the Courts won’t identify the 32 magistrates who have filed notices of recusal or where they work, saying that personnel information is confidential under state law.
North Carolina gay rights and civil liberties groups have been urging couples who are denied a marriage license under the law to contact their offices. It could form the basis of litigation to challenge the law. No lawsuits have yet been filed.
Sarah Preston with the American Civil Liberties Union in North Carolina said in a release while it was troubling to hear that government officials would refuse to perform a part of their job, “it’s clear that the vast majority of magistrates are more than willing to serve all members of the public fairly and equally.”