Republicans in North Carolina’s General Assembly have now officially gone from lawmakers to lawbreakers.
The state House on Thursday overrode Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto and approved Senate Bill 2, a bill that allows magistrates and registers of deeds to renege on their oath of office and refuse to preside over or certify a marriage between two people of the same sex.
Senate leader Phil Berger, the champion of the measure, says it protects the religious freedom of public servants who have religious objections to same-sex marriage. But this is not about protecting religion. It is about respecting the law. With this vote, the majority has scoffed at it.
Public servants who have religious objections to same-sex marriage can give up their jobs or find others elsewhere in the government. They are not compelled to violate their beliefs. However, in light of federal court rulings upholding the right of same-sex couples to marry, a law allowing magistrates and others to refuse them marriage would violate the Constitution. Soon, the U.S. Supreme Court may affirm those rulings.
In practice, this suspect law will do little to curb the right of same-sex couple to marry. Most will be able to find a willing magistrate easily. But legalizing refusal on religious grounds stains this newly won right and declares it less of a right than others, a right that can be arbitrarily refused based on a magistrate’s prejudice dressed up as religious virtue.
The governor stressed this point in his veto message, saying: “I recognize that, for many North Carolinians, including myself, opinions on same-sex marriage come from sincerely held religious beliefs that marriage is between a man and a woman. However, we are a nation and a state of laws. Whether it is the president, governor, mayor, a law enforcement officer or magistrate, no public official who voluntarily swears to support and defend the Constitution and to discharge all duties of their office should be exempt from upholding that oath.”
In its defiant rejection of that message, the General Assembly once more raises that flag of intolerance over North Carolina as it did when it approved an amendment to the state Constitution banning same-sex marriage. That flag is seen nationwide. It will be another signal of the state’s rightward turn and another reason why businesses and people will less inclined to make a new home in North Carolina. Even if Democrats reclaimed the General Assembly, it would be years before the state’s image could heal from the battering this current legislative leadership is giving it.
The new law will be challenged, of course. The ACLU has already issued a statement inviting North Carolina gay couples “who encounter new hurdles because of this discriminatory law to contact our office.” A lawsuit in this case will join the parade of others brought against the products of this reckless legislature.
That parade includes legal challenges over voter rights, voting districts, abortion rights, teachers’ rights and school vouchers, but the fallout from passage of SB 2 will be of a different type. This will not be simply politics taken to court. This will be a challenge to the rule of law itself.
The state’s lawmakers have made it legal to pick and choose what laws one will follow. That has implications not only for public servants, but for everyone.