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If you didn’t get your paper this morning because of the snow, be sure to click here to check out Asheville judge Perry Dror’s op-ed on the state Senate’s latest marriage discrimination proposal in Raleigh’s News & Observer.  As Dror explains:

I understand that some magistrates have felt deep concern about whether they should marry same-sex couples based on their sincere religious convictions. Some have even gone so far as to resign.

But any magistrate who resigns over “religious objections” to performing same-sex marriages is confusing a magistrate’s responsibility to conduct civil marriage ceremonies with a member of the clergy’s ability to sanctify a marriage.

Magistrates don’t sanctify marriages, and never have. We perform civil ceremonies, and we shouldn’t have the ability to deny that service to anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, race or religion.

The U.S. Constitution protects the free exercise of religion and ensures that no clergy member would ever be forced to sanctify a marriage with which they disagree. Under the law, no church can be compelled to perform a marriage that falls outside their faith tradition.

But government is different. Public officials should treat everyone equally under the law. Our oath demands it.

Commentary

Raleigh’s News & Observer has a fine editorial this morning in which it fricassees the state Senate over the absurd bill it approved today to establish a “separate but equal” marriage system for the state. As the editorial noted:

“Sworn public officials have to do their duty, and this not-so-clever bit of legislating is certain to be found unconstitutional. Magistrates and registers of deeds don’t get to cop out of their jobs based on their personal beliefs.

This is amateur hour at the General Assembly, and a petty action that could get expensive. The legislature already has spent nearly $100,000 to have outside lawyers appeal the federal rulings on same-sex marriage. State Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, wisely decided not to press on with appeals once the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the issue.

If the high court rules that laws banning gay marriage are unconstitutional, it follows that a silly maneuver like this one regarding magistrates will fall quickly in the courts as well.”

Another issue the authors might have noted and that Senator Angela Bryant and others rightfully emphasized in today’s debate is the question of “what constitutes a ‘sincere religious belief’?” Will it now be okay for magistrates who have “sincere religious” objections to interracial marriage to opt out of their jobs?

And, for that matter, what about other providers of public services? What if a schoolteacher’s sincere religious belief forbids the teaching of boys and girls together in the same classroom? What if an E.M.T. converts to a religion that forbids blood transfusions? Read More

Commentary
Guilford Co. Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen

Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen

Senate Bill 2, the controversial proposal to allow North Carolina magistrates to avoid their duty to perform marriages for same-sex couples was whisked through the state Senate’s Judiciary II Committee today as thousands of North Carolinians remained stranded by an unexpected snowstorm. By my watch, the meeting featured all of eight minutes in public comment on what is, by any fair assessment, a proposal of great import and serious constitutional implications.

Of course, the lightning-fast review was no accident. When you’re selling a proposal that’s a gussied up effort to legalize discrimination and “separate but equal” public services, it’s best not to linger in any one place for too long lest people quickly see through the pancake makeup.

Let’s hope that, at some point, public outrage at the proposal (see for instance, today’s edition of the Fitzsimon File) forces lawmakers to apply the brakes to this particular train so that additional rational voices can be heard.

In this vein, a great example would be Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen. here is a letter Thigpen sent to the memberso the Judiciary II Committee via email at 7:40 this morning:

Dear Judiciary II Committee members,

I learned late yesterday SB 2 had been put on the calendar for hearing today. It’s snowing in Guilford County and Schools are closed. I don’t know if I’ll be able to attend but I wanted to express a number of concerns I have with the bill, specifically regarding the Register of Deeds provisions. They are as follows:

1) A “sincerely held religious objection” is not defined. If a Catholic employee discovers an applicant is applying for a second marriage, can they file a religious objection based on this bill?

2) As a manager, Register of Deeds will be put on notice by their employee(s) regarding their religious objection (which is not defined). There is no due diligence or deliberation regarding this matter. The employee is given power, without question, to state the religious objection and immediately be exempted from issuing marriage licenses to ANY citizen. The employee is then given a six month free pass from performing their duties processing marriage licenses.

This can have a serious impact on our daily operations and undermines our role as managers of our offices. Read More

News

Supreme courtThis morning, a majority of the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block same-sex marriages in Alabama pending the high court’s decision on the constitutionality of similar marriage bans in other states — making Alabama the 37th state in which such marriages are permitted.

The court is scheduled to hear cases out of Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans in April, with a ruling expected in June.

Allowing yet another state to move ahead with gay marriage led many to speculate that a majority on the nation’s highest court were moving towards acceptance of the argument that state bans are in fact unconstitutional.

Fueling that speculation was a dissent by Justice Clarence Thomas, joined in by Justice Antonin Scalia, chastising his colleagues for not staying Alabama marriages.

Thomas wrote:

This court looks the other way as yet another federal district judge casts aside state laws without making any effort to preserve the status quo pending the court’s resolution of a constitutional question it left open in United States v. Windsor [the court’s 2013 decision striking down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act].

This acquiescence may well be seen as a signal of the Court’s intended resolution of that question. This is not the proper way to discharge our . . . responsibilities. And, it is indecorous for this Court to pretend that it is.

A federal judge had already ruled in January that Alabama’s ban was unconstitutional, but stayed the ruling until today in order to give the state time to appeal. State Attorney General Luther Strange then headed straight to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking that relief.

With that deadline and the possibility of federally-sanctioned same-sex marriages looming, Alabama Chief Justice Roy S. Moore issued an order last night prohibiting state probate judges from issuing marriage licenses to such couples. 

(This was not the first time Moore defiantly tangled with the federal courts, as the New York Times noted earlier today. Readers may remember Moore’s refusal in the early 2000s to obey a federal judge’s order requiring the removal of a Ten Commandments monument from a Montgomery building — a move which led to his removal from the Chief Justice post. He became Chief Justice again in 2013.)

But once the high court refused to issue a stay order, probate judges across the state defied Moore’s order and began marrying gay couples.

As Robert Barnes at the Washington Post correctly points out, the dissent by two of the justices does not necessarily mean that the remaining seven all voted in favor of denying a stay.  Rather, it means only that Thomas and Scalia chose to give their reasons for voting otherwise.

Wrote Barnes:

Some justices may have thought Alabama should receive a stay, but did not join Thomas’s dissent. All that is clear from Monday’s action is that a majority of the nine justices turned down the request, and only Thomas and Scalia gave reasons for their actions. 

News
(Graphic: Center for American Progress)

(Graphic: Center for American Progress)

Things at the U.S. Supreme Court may seem a bit quiet right now, with conferences and oral arguments not scheduled to start up again until later in the month, but don’t let that lull you into a sense of calm.

Once the justices reconvene, all hell could break loose, with same-sex marriage, Obamacare, lethal injection and redistricting among the issues being reviewed.

“The term went from being one of the more uneventful terms in recent years to potentially one of the biggest ones in a generation,” SCOTUSblog editor Amy Howe said.

For a look at what big issues have been argued and decided as well as what’s in queue, read the update by CNN’s Ariane de Vogue here.