State Politics

14 magistrates opt out of marriages under new law

With their children, Phinnlei, 6, and Oliver Scott, 4, Christian Scott, left, of Apex, gets married to her partner Robyn Ross, right, around 9:15pm at the Wake County Justice Center on Friday, October 10, 2014. They were the second-to-last couple to tie the knot on the first day that same-sex marriages could take place in North Carolina.
With their children, Phinnlei, 6, and Oliver Scott, 4, Christian Scott, left, of Apex, gets married to her partner Robyn Ross, right, around 9:15pm at the Wake County Justice Center on Friday, October 10, 2014. They were the second-to-last couple to tie the knot on the first day that same-sex marriages could take place in North Carolina. clowenst@newsobserver.com

Fourteen of the state’s 672 magistrates have opted out of performing marriages in the month after the legislature approved exemptions for those who invoked religious objections.

The new law took effect in June after the House and Senate overrode a veto from Gov. Pat McCrory. The measure is designed to keep public employees who object to same-sex marriage from losing their jobs.

The state Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees magistrates, reported this week that 14 magistrates across the state have sought the recusals – which mean they cannot perform marriages for any couple, regardless of sexual orientation, for at least six months.

That represents about 2 percent of the state’s magistrates. AOC spokeswoman Sharon Gladwell declined to identify the counties where the recused magistrates work. She said the recusals are a confidential personnel matter, and that providing the county-specific information would allow for identification of recused magistrates.

In register of deeds offices, five of 100 counties across the state have had employees opt out of issuing and processing marriage licenses, according to the N.C. Association of Registers of Deeds.

Sarah Preston lobbied against the bill as director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. She said the recusals represent “a pretty small number.”

“I think that indicates that this was really a non-issue,” Preston said Tuesday. “The legislature made this a bigger deal than it needs to be.”

Rev. Mark Creech of the conservative Christian Action League, which supported the legislation, said he disagrees.

“The number is unimportant,” he said. “What’s important is that people who have a sincerely held religious objection will have protections. When the religious liberty of one or two people are threatened, the religious liberty of all of us is threatened in some respect.”

Moore County Register of Deeds Judy Martin, who heads the state association, said the employee recusals were filed mostly in smaller counties with less than a half dozen staffers – Ashe, Graham, McDowell and Stanly counties. Guilford was the only urban county to report a recusal, she said.

“That’s really not a lot of counties,” Martin said. “We really didn’t know (the effect) until it actually went into law.”

Some had worried that in smaller counties, one employee opting out could force the elected register of deeds to be available for marriage licenses for 40 hours every week or risk a lawsuit.

But in mountainous Graham County, one of the state’s least populous counties, Register of Deeds Carolyn Stewart said her office is still able to issue licenses whenever it’s open. “We’re good to go,” she said.

Despite the low numbers of recusals statewide, Chris Sgro of the LGBT advocacy group Equality NC said the law could still create problems for couples seeking to marry.

“Depending on where those 14 are in the state, that could severely impact counties’ ability to do business,” Sgro said, noting that some counties have only three magistrates. “It will not change our look into the legality and the constitutionality of this law.”

Sgro and Preston said their groups want to hear from any couples who encounter problems getting married, but they haven’t received any complaints so far. Neither group is ruling out a lawsuit.

“We’re keeping all of our options on the table,” Preston said.

Campbell: 919-829-4698;

Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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