N.C. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said on Oct. 21 that he would support legislation in the 2015 session allowing magistrates and other state officials to refrain from granting licenses to gay couples for religious reasons. The legislative session begins in January.
Berger’s office said in a statement the senator was motivated by recent state events.
Gay marriage has been legal in North Carolina since Oct. 10, when a federal judge struck down the state’s constitutional ban. That ruling followed the Oct. 6 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, which let stand a July ruling striking down Virginia’s ban. The Virginia ruling was made by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and North Carolina falls under the 4th Circuit’s jurisdiction, making the ruling legally binding in the state.
“It’s simple really: The opponents of marriage equality lost,” said Louis Duke, president of the College Democrats of North Carolina. “It’s time to get over it and move on. Sen. Berger needs to stop throwing a hissy fit.”
Berger’s statement said the court system failed to observe a requirement under federal and state law to consider alternatives to recognize religious beliefs of employees.
Steven Greene, a North Carolina State University professor of political science, said Berger’s move was an effort to keep conservatives focused on the issue in the upcoming election.
But Berger’s efforts are in vain, said Chris Sgro, executive director of LGBT rights group Equality N.C.
“According to Gov. Pat McCrory, the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, two federal judges and the laws these types of civil servants swear to uphold statewide, it is unlawful for registers of deeds in North Carolina to refuse to marry same-sex couples for any reason,” Sgro said. “Hastily proposed legislation from Sen. Phil Berger will not supersede these directives.”
Sgro said it’s a matter of employees doing their jobs.
“The issue at hand is not about individuals’ rights to freedom of religion, and Berger, as an attorney, should understand the law well enough to know that,” he said. “In even more states, similar legislation has been ... flatly rejected by the community, business leaders and fair-minded members of both parties.”
But Berger said in the statement that the court’s expansion of the freedoms of some should not violate the constitutional rights of others.
“Complying with the new marriage law imposed by the courts should not require our state employees to compromise their core religious beliefs and First Amendment rights in order to protect their livelihoods,” he said.
Duke said Berger’s move is discriminatory.
“In spite of what Sen. Berger says, as someone who grew up in a Baptist church in Rockingham County, I can assure you this has nothing to do with religious freedom.”