RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina magistrates were directed Wednesday to perform civil marriages for same-sex couples or face suspension or dismissal from their state jobs.
Pamela Weaver Best, general counsel for the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, sent a letter to state magistrates saying they would be violating their oaths of office if they refused to marry gay or lesbian couples.
The directive came after a magistrate in Pasquotank County on Monday refused to marry two men, citing religious objections. Some magistrates in Alamance County also said they wouldn’t marry gay couples.
A federal judge last week struck down North Carolina’s same-sex marriage ban as unconstitutional.
Best said magistrates who refuse to marry gay couples face suspension or dismissal. They could also face misdemeanor criminal charges for failing to discharge their duties.
“If a valid marriage license … is presented, it is a statutory duty of the magistrate to conduct the marriage between the persons named in the license in the same manner as the magistrate would conduct any other marriage,” Best wrote. “A failure to do so would be a violation of the U.S. Constitution under the federal ruling, and would constitute a violation of the oath and a failure to perform a duty of the office.”
Magistrates are state employees, but are directly supervised by the chief district court judges in the county where they are appointed.
The Daily Advance of Elizabeth City reported that Pasquotank Magistrate Gary Littleton refused on Monday to marry a gay couple, citing his religious views that marriage should be between one man and one woman. Another magistrate married the men Tuesday.
Chief District Judge Christopher Bean said he would investigate whether Littleton refused to wed the men only if a formal complaint is filed. Bean added that Littleton is not seeking reappointment to his magistrate’s position when his term ends in December. Littleton made that decision before Monday, Bean said.
In Alamance County, Chief District Court Judge Jim Roberson told The Times-News of Burlington that some of the 11 magistrates under his supervision didn’t want to officiate same-sex marriage ceremonies.
“As a team, we’re going to abide by the law,” Roberson said. “Some of our magistrates have concerns based on their faiths and religious beliefs. I completely respect that. Other magistrates do not.”
Roberson said a magistrate comfortable with performing the ceremony would step in if another declined.
Equality NC, a group that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, expressed concern Wednesday that magistrates refusing to marry same-sex couples might escape punishment.
“It appears from statements made in the media that certain magistrates who object to performing same-sex marriage ceremonies will not be required to do so, in direct violation of the law,” said a statement issued by Jen Jones, the group’s communications director. “We are investigating these claims and will work diligently with local, state, and federal officials to assure that all state employees, including public officials in North Carolina’s 100 counties, are upholding the marriage laws of our state.”