NC senate leader proposes legislation boosting state officials who refuse to marry gay couples

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RALEIGH, North Carolina — A top North Carolina Republican said Tuesday that he will back a bill protecting state officials who refuse to issue marriage licenses or perform weddings for same-sex couples.

Senate Leader Phil Berger Sr. said he will introduce legislation in response to a magistrate in his home county who decided to resign instead of agreeing to marry gays, citing his personal religious views.

The state court system has said any magistrates who refuse to heed the recent federal court ruling striking down the state's same-sex marriage ban are violating their oaths and could face dismissal. Berger said magistrates and registers of deeds who refuse service to gay couples are within their rights under constitutional protections guaranteeing freedom of religion.

"The court's expansion of the freedoms of some should not violate the well-recognized constitutional rights of others," said Berger, R-Rockingham. "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."

Berger announced his plans Thursday at an event in Wentworth, standing beside the magistrate who resigned. His office declined an interview request from The Associated Press.

Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis hired conservative lawyers to appeal the federal marriage ruling, after the state's attorney general declared all potential legal defenses had been exhausted. Tillis is currently in a tight campaign for the U.S. Senate. Both were strong backers of the now-defunct 2012 voter referendum that limited marriage to being between one man and one woman.

The recent case is not the first time state magistrates have cited religious objections to marrying certain couples. In 1977, AP reported that two Forsyth County magistrates refused to marry a black man and a white woman, nearly 10 years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared state bans on interracial marriage unconstitutional. The couple responded by filing a federal lawsuit against the state officials.

Advocacy groups supporting the marriage rights of gays and lesbians suggested Tuesday it is the Senate leader who is now on the wrong side of history.

"Sen. Berger continues to waste taxpayer dollars and ignore the real issues of the day, like our economy, education, and the environment," said Chris Sgro, the executive director of Equality NC. "The issue at hand is not about individuals' rights to freedom of religion and Berger, as an attorney, should understand the law well enough to know that. The issue (is) employees of the State of North Carolina doing their jobs."


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Follow Associated Press Writer Michael Biesecker at Twitter.com/mbieseck

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