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North Carolina lawmakers override veto, allowing officials to refuse to perform same-sex marriages

North Carolina lawmakers override veto, allowing officials to refuse to perform same-sex marriages
North Carolina state capitol in Raleigh.
North Carolina state capitol in Raleigh.

RALEIGH, N.C. — Under a law that took effect Thursday in North Carolina, employees who issue marriage licenses can refuse to complete paperwork for gay couples by invoking their religious beliefs – a move that could mean longer waits at courthouses for all those who want to wed, especially in rural counties with small staffs.

Gay rights groups and some Democrats said legal challenges were likely to come soon for the new law, the second of its kind nationwide. Utah passed one this year.

North Carolina’s law took effect as the state House voted to override Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s earlier veto. The Senate already had voted for the override. McCrory said though he believes marriage is between a man and a woman, no state employee should be able to break his or her government oath. His position puts him at odds with social conservatives aligned with his party.

Under the law, some register of deeds workers who assemble licenses and magistrates who solemnize civil marriages can decide to stop performing all marriages – for both straight and gay couples – if they hold a “sincerely held religious objection.” Employees with a religious objection must stop performing all marriage duties for at least six months.

The chief District Court judge or the county register of deeds – both elected officials – would fill in on marriages if needed, but if enough staff members opt out, the issuing of all licenses in a county could fall to a single person.

Such a workload could mean longer waits or even days without anyone to issue licenses if the register is out sick, on vacation, or out of the office for work.

“There’s certainly no way that an elected register, if they were the only person in the office issuing licenses, could be there 40 hours a week, every week,” said Wayne Rash, the register of deeds for Caldwell County.

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Of the state’s 100 counties, 45 have three or fewer full-time employees in the register of deeds’ office aside from the elected official.

“In a rural county that has only two or three employees, it will be problematic,” said Drew Reisinger, who is Buncombe County’s register of deeds and who opposes the law. “It is a very real scenario.”

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