The attention surrounding North Carolina's controversial bathroom law makes it easy to forget that the Tar Heel State recently enacted another anti-LGBT measure. This one allows magistrates to opt-out of their duty to perform marriages for at least six months if they have a religious objection. Though it requires magistrates to stop performing all marriages, the law was clearly passed so that they could avoid officiating marriage for same-sex couples. Now, due to a lawsuit in federal court, it’s back in the news.
The lawsuit, brought by two same-sex couples and an opposite-sex, interracial couple in 2015, contends that the law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. According to the Associated Press, about five percent of magistrates have opted-out of performing marriages, including all of the magistrates in McDowell County. So, taxpayers are footing the bill for magistrates from another county to travel there to perform marriages.
The state has asked the court to throw out the suit and at a hearing on Monday, a federal judge seemed skeptical of that request. He expressed concerns that magistrates’ refusal to fulfill their duties to officiate marriages are not made public. So, for example, if a same-sex couple has to go before a magistrate for other matters, they won’t know if the magistrate has religious objections to their marriage. The judge explained, "When litigants come to you, they have to know they are getting a fair shot."
Religious freedom means we all have the right to believe as we see fit. But religion is no excuse to harm others. The law, however, violates this fundamental principle—it permits magistrates to refuse to do their job based on religion and as a result, threatens North Carolinians’ constitutional rights. We’ll be watching this case.