Smithfield: Opinion

Voting their hearts, minds

For someone who listens to many General Assembly debates, it’s refreshing when the most contentious votes don’t come down precisely along party lines.

That’s what happened in a Senate debate over whether to allow magistrates to opt out of performing marriages if they have “sincerely held religious objections” to same-sex marriages.

The Republican-sponsored bill passed 32-16. Two Democratic senators voted with Republicans in favor of the legislation. Two Republicans sided with Democrats against it. One of the Democrats was Sen. Ben Clark of Hoke County. One of the Republicans was Sen. Jeff Tarte of Mecklenburg County.

And they didn’t simply vote against their parties. Clark and Tarte offered some of the best arguments for and against the legislation, respectively.

I consider the legislators courageous and free-thinking, not traitors.

“I am about to step out on an island by myself,” Tarte said as he began his comments on the Senate floor.

Tarte then pointed out that he is Methodist, a church that opposes same-sex marriage. He is authorized to perform marriages, believes marriage is between a man and a woman and wouldn’t marry same-sex couples.

You’d think he’d support the bill, right? Wrong.

Tarte talked to judges and magistrates before voting against Senate Bill 2. He said he learned that many magistrates offices could accommodate those who didn’t want to perform same-sex marriages through scheduling or other administrative measures, avoiding divisive legislation.

“They don’t necessarily need this legislation to do that,” Tarte said.

An easier fix, he said, would be to ensure magistrates couldn’t be fired for refusal to perform gay marriages.

As he researched the bill, Tarte also was reminded of the instructions judges make to juries – that they must “interpret and follow the law as I instruct you, not as you want the law to be.”

Tarte apparently was suggesting that lawmakers and magistrates should follow the law. Same-sex marriages are legal in North Carolina – at least for now. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments this spring about the constitutionality of such unions.

Clark said the bill protects religious liberties of “those with deeply held convictions on marriage,” while also ensuring that same-sex couples can marry. He argued that no one would be prevented from getting married and that couples might find it easier to do so because the bill mandates each county open for marriages for at least 10 hours per week.

The General Assembly, Clark opined, has an obligation to protect religious beliefs in ways that don’t prevent citizens from receiving services to which they are entitled. He deemed Senate Bill 2 a “fair and reasonable compromise to an important issue facing our state.”

Clark, an African-American, also responded to concerns from Democratic colleagues that the bill discriminates against same-sex couples.

“I know discrimination when I see it,” he said. “This is not discrimination. If I thought it was, I most certainly would not have voted in support of this bill.”

Patrick Gannon writes about state government and politics.

  Comments