Latest marriage bill is simply more of the same from N.C. lawmakers

Last month, the North Carolina Senate approved a bill that would allow magistrates and register of deeds employees to opt out of providing marriage services. While the bill does not mention gay marriage explicitly, it allows employees to recuse themselves from performing marriages by citing a “sincerely held religious objection.”

In a statement released after the bill passed, Senate leader Phil Berger, the Republican who sponsored the legislation, commented, “While the courts have taken steps to provide special rights to some, we must not ignore the constitutionally protected rights of others.”

Berger’s statement, to put it plainly, is simply wrong on both counts. The federal courts have conferred no “special rights” to any group of North Carolina citizens. The right to marry was simply extended last year to a group that had previously been barred from entering into legal matrimony in the state.

Berger’s assertion that the Senate bill would somehow uphold constitutional rights is also misguided. Unless I’m woefully misinformed, the employees involved in this matter have not been asked to surrender any constitutional rights, they’ve simply been asked to perform the basic duties of their job.

While I can certainly understand why some individuals would be uncomfortable performing or otherwise dealing with same sex marriages, that does not give them the right to turn those couples away. Most people, myself included, have certain aspects of their jobs that make them uncomfortable. When that occurs I have a choice: either deal with the issue and move on or find another job. One option I don’t have is to refuse to perform a fundamental task and then whine that it offends me and simply forget about it. If that’s the new work place policy in this state then I’ll be damned if I’m getting up at 5 a.m. anymore, a practice that offends me on levels far beyond the merely spiritual.

In his statement, Berger cited a case in his home county in which a magistrate was forced to resign over his refusal to perform gay marriages. Good for him; he did the right thing. If others feel unable to comply with federal law, they should do the same.

An obvious problem with the bill is the term “sincerely held religious objection,” which lends itself to so many different interpretations that it could be construed to mean almost anything. Could Jewish magistrates refuse to marry Christian couples? Could Christians refuse to marry atheists? Would a magistrate be allowed to turn away an interracial couple based on a “religious” objection?

Of course the impetus behind this bill is not a mass of magistrates and register of deeds employees gathered in Raleigh demanding action. Predictably, it comes from the same politicians who have shown a willingness to pander to the lowest common denominator among their constituents time and time again—the same politicians who, at the expense of state jobs and health coverage for thousands, refused federal money to expand Medicaid.

While some of our geriatric lawmakers undoubtedly believe in the moral imperative of the Senate bill, I suspect many of them are simply using it as a means to prove their “conservative” credentials. What their actions truly offer proof of, however, is the kind of venal, manipulative mindset that seems to be required of anyone seeking public office these days.

Frankly, it’s shameful that the leaders of a state that is forty-eighth in the nation in education spending, with state revenue collections coming in at $199.2 million below projections (according to the legislature’s non-partisan Fiscal Research Division’s new revenue outlook report) are focusing their time and resources on this idiocy.

To our lawmakers in Raleigh I offer the same advice I would give to the offended magistrates and register of deeds employees: If you can’t or won’t do your job, then step down and let someone else take over.

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