“Religious freedom” bill may not leave enough magistrates to perform marriages

marriage amendmentYesterday afternoon, members of the public were given an opportunity to share their thoughts on Senate Bill 2 before the House Judiciary I Committee. The bill, which would permit magistrates and registers of deeds to recuse themselves from performing same-sex marriages due to their religious beliefs, has been hotly contested since it was first introduced in late January.

During the meeting, opponents of the bill stressed the difference between the civil duty of magistrates and the religious freedom of clergy. They also reminded the committee that government officials shouldn’t be allowed to refuse to perform a duty which is part of their job when it deprives the public of a right. However, disagreement between committee members on whether performing civil marriages is the duty of a magistrate or a power given to him provided evidence that many legislators are still missing the point.

It was, therefore, probably a good for the legislators to also hear about the practical problems with the bill. According to Jeff Thigpen, Register of Deeds in Guilford County, there is already a deficit of magistrates in the state and a very large number of marriages to perform. In just the previous month, in his county, there were 3,600 civil marriages, 265 of which were same-sex marriages. If magistrates are given the choice to opt-out of performing same-sex marriages, which will bar them from performing any marriages for the following six months, it’s likely there won’t be enough magistrates to perform any marriages. Also, as Wayne Rash of the North Carolina Association of Registers of Deeds, explained, 42 counties in North Carolina have 3 or fewer magistrates in their office and 8 of those counties only have one magistrate. The government officials who would be affected by the bill on a daily basis wanted to know what would happen if one of the magistrates in these single magistrate offices was to recuse him or herself? And if they were to hire a new magistrate to replace him, would they able to ask the candidate what his religious views are? If not, it’s possible that the new magistrate would also ask for a religious recusal which would put them back at square one.

These are valid questions that, if viewed without the lens of personal bias, should prove to legislators that regardless of whether or not they believe this is a discriminatory bill, it is an impractical one.

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