State legislators returned Wednesday from a two-week break and got straight to work, filing 28 bills that address hot topics ranging from same-sex marriage to political parties’ role in judicial elections.
Most of the proposals won’t see any discussion until at least next week. Wednesday’s brief sessions were mostly ceremonial, including a quick visit from Gov. Pat McCrory.
The first bills indicated that 2015 will bring robust debate. Senate leader Phil Berger filed a bill that
would allow magistrates and register of deeds staffers who object to marrying gay couples to recuse themselves from performing those ceremonies for religious reasons. To address constitutional concerns about discrimination, recusals would prevent them from participating in all marriage-related duties.
“While the courts have expanded the freedoms of some, we must not ignore the constitutionally protected rights of others,” Berger said in a statement about Senate Bill 2. “This bill offers a reasonable solution to protect the First Amendment rights of magistrates and register of deeds employees while complying with the marriage law ordered by the courts – so they are not forced to abandon their religious beliefs to save their jobs.”
Same-sex marriage supporters and Democratic legislators were quick to condemn Berger’s plan, saying it would enable discrimination against gay couples. “Government offices that are open to the public must be open to everyone, including gays and lesbians,” state Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat, said in a news release.
Berger has plenty of support from fellow Republicans, with 14 co-sponsors signing the measure by the end of the day. House Speaker Tim Moore said Wednesday that House Republicans would discuss the proposal, and “if there’s a lot of support in the caucus for the bill, we’ll move forward with it.”
Staffing for weddings
The bill would aid magistrates and register of deeds employees who quit when faced with same-sex marriages. At least six magistrates publicly resigned within weeks of the October court ruling that legalized gay marriage.
Under Berger’s bill, anyone who resigned or was fired can apply for any vacant jobs.
The measure could mean magistrates are available less often to perform weddings. The chief District Court judge in each county would be responsible for ensuring that weddings are offered for at least 10 hours per week and on three business days. Wake County currently offers magistrate ceremonies for 67 hours per week.
More controversy ahead
Berger’s proposal likely won’t be the only GOP effort to promise enhanced “religious freedom.” In the House, Republican Rep. Paul Stam of Apex said he’ll file a broader bill likely modeled off the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Asked Wednesday if his bill would allow businesses to turn away gay couples seeking wedding services, Stam said that it “would include many, many dozens of applications.”
Plenty of other debates are brewing too. Sen. Ralph Hise, a Spruce Pine Republican, took aim at the State Employees Association of North Carolina. His bill would eliminate automatic payroll deductions that now allow state employees to pay SEANC dues. Hise was a top target of SEANC’s political action committee in last year’s Republican primary, with the group spending heavily to support Hise’s GOP challenger.
SEANC’s government relations director, Ardis Watkins, said she’ll lobby to defeat the bill. “We fail to see how this accomplishes any public interest,” she said. Hise could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Judicial elections bill
Also likely to generate controversy: an effort to make the state’s judicial elections a partisan affair. Candidates for N.C. Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals already receive strong support from their political parties, but their affiliations don’t appear on the ballot.
Proponents of partisan judicial races say the nonpartisan format deprives voters of information and reduces participation. Twenty House members – most of them Republican – have signed the bill as co-sponsors.
Speeches and protests
As the first bills head to committees next week, McCrory will return at 7 p.m. Wednesday for his State of the State speech. He’s expected to seek funding for incentives to attract new employers as well as the restoration of a tax credit for historic preservation.
Protesters who appeared Wednesday signaled that they would also return to press issues voiced during a series of weekly protests last session that resulted in more than 900 arrests. On Wednesday, a small group attempting to enter the legislative chambers and some offices verbally sparred with General Assembly police and a legislator’s aide.
Meanwhile, Democratic leaders held a forum on jobs late in the day, using it to draw distinctions.
“Instead of focusing on jobs and the economy, Republicans have made very clear that they instead will focus on divisive social issues,” Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue of Raleigh said.
Blue also spoke about his party’s agenda briefly on the Senate floor over an interruption from Republican Sen. Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville, who sought to adjourn the session before Blue was done. Staff writer Lynn Bonner and Patrick Gannon of the N.C. Insider contributed to this report.