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Same-sex marriage takes center stage at first work day of N.C. General Assembly

Same-sex marriage takes center stage at first work day of N.C. General Assembly
RALEIGH, N.C. — Same-sex marriage took center stage on Wednesday’s first work day at the North Carolina General Assembly as the Senate’s top leader pushed for religious exemptions for some court officials from marriage duties months after the state’s same-sex marriage ban was struck down.

North Carolina state capitol in Raleigh.
North Carolina state capitol in Raleigh.

Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, filed a bill to allow magistrates to refuse to preside at same-sex weddings and assistant and deputy registers of deeds to not issue licenses based on “sincerely held religious objection.” But any such recusal must last at least six months, and the officials couldn’t be involved in traditional marriages either.

“What we’re talking about is trying to protect or at least recognize and provide an accommodation for people who have sincerely held beliefs that are protected by the First Amendment,” Berger said in an interview with The Associated Press. “So what we’re trying to is find a balance.”

Democratic lawmakers and the gay-rights group Equality North Carolina said at a news conference such a recusal measure is discrimination in disguise against gays and lesbians.

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“In North Carolina, gay marriage is legal and the magistrates who have sworn to administer these laws must do so equally and for everyone,” said Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, a former assistant district attorney. He added that as an appointed prosecutor he couldn’t choose or refuse to prosecute anyone based on personal religious beliefs.

Berger had said he’d file a recusal bill after federal judges last October struck down North Carolina’s 2012 constitutional amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman and a Rockingham County judge resigned in protest.

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Legislative leaders are still fighting for the amendment’s legality in court. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to weigh in this year on similar bans in other states as judges have thrown them out in a flurry of recent rulings.

Berger said requiring the exemption for all marriages ensures court officials aren’t picking and choosing whom they will wed. But Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, said it doesn’t assuage the ulterior motive of bias and could lead to a slippery slope of court officials refusing all sorts of expected duties.

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The bill also makes clear the elected register of deeds and the chief District Court judge for each county are still obligated to carry out marriage duties for all. And any magistrate who was fired or resigned – presumably for religious objections – since early October won’t be penalized if they seek a vacant magistrate position.

Berger said he expected the Senate Republican Caucus would support his bill.

Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, said Wednesday he would file this session a separate “religious freedom” bill similar to a federal measure that would require government to show “a compelling interest” before a law could provide a significant obstacle for a citizen with strong religious beliefs to carry out.

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