North Carolina

Court official defends directive that N.C. magistrates officiate gay weddings

Judge John W. Smith

Judge John W. Smith

RALEIGH, N.C. — The chief administrator of North Carolina‘s courts told a top legislator that magistrates are duty-bound to marry gay couples and he’s seen no federal law or rulings exempting them based on religious beliefs opposing same-sex marriage.

Judge John W. Smith

Judge John W. Smith

Administrative Office of the Courts Director Judge John W. Smith wrote this week in response to a letter from Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and more than two dozen other Senate Republicans. The Oct. 24 letter asked Smith to revise a directive ordering magistrates to perform civil weddings for gay couples or face losing their jobs.

Several magistrates have quit rather than perform same-sex marriages since two federal judges last month blocked enforcement of the state’s gay marriage prohibition approved by voters in 2012. The rulings came when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case that overturned Virginia‘s similar ban.

The Republicans called the court system’s memo “at best incomplete and at worst misleading” by failing to take into account constitutional religious freedoms and federal civil rights laws for workers and government employees.

Smith cited a 1991 U.S. Supreme Court decision that he says excluded state judicial employees from the definition of protected employees on the basis of religious beliefs.

“Whether we agree or disagree with the holdings, the courts have defined the scope of due process and equal protection under the constitution of the United States on this issue,” he wrote Wednesday. “Unless and until those holdings are stayed, modified, or reversed, our magistrates are affirmatively bound by those rulings in exercising their official powers.”

Smith wrote he respects magistrates who hold religious beliefs that are in conflict with their duties but “other magistrates with equally sincere and deep religious beliefs recognize a quite clear distinction between marriage as a civil ceremony conferring legal status, and marriage as a religious institution quite apart from temporal concerns.”

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Berger has said he would introduce a bill next year protecting state officials who refuse to issue marriage licenses or perform weddings for same-sex couples. While magistrates’ powers are within the province of the legislature, Smith wrote as long as they perform marriages “magistrates need to be aware of the potential consequences” for failing to follow the law, including getting sued by others if they refuse to officiate.

Finding another magistrate willing to perform a wedding may be difficult. About half the counties often only have one on duty, Smith wrote.

Berger on Thursday wasn’t persuaded by Smith and stands by the legal arguments in the letter by Senate Republicans.

“Ensuring these employees don’t have to abandon their religious beliefs to save their jobs is the right thing to do – and isn’t too much to ask of the court system,” Berger said in a statement.

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