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Advocates urge exemption bill on NC gay marriages blocked; court officials seek changes

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RALEIGH, North Carolina — Clergy and advocates differed Wednesday whether over judicial officials are obligated by law to carry out civil same-sex marriages in North Carolina even if they object to gay marriage due to their religious beliefs.

Several people addressed a House judiciary panel charged with considering a Senate bill approved last week that would let magistrates and assistant and deputy registers of deeds refuse to carry out marriage duties with a "sincerely held religious objection."

The bill was filed by Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, to address the concerns of some magistrates who resigned after federal judges struck down in October a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Voters approved the amendment in a referendum in 2012.

No vote was taken on the measure Wednesday. Committee chairman Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, said afterward no decision had been made about how lawmakers would handle the bill moving forward.

Under the bill, magistrates and assistant and deputy registers of deeds who bring religious objections would have to stop marriage duties for all couples for at least six months. The elected register of deeds and the chief district court judge for each county would fill in as a last resort. A couple goes to the register's office to obtain a license. A magistrate can officiate at a marriage.

The Rev. Lorraine Ljunggren, rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Raleigh, said government officials take an oath to impartially and faithfully carry out the law for everyone.

"Basing on an individual's religious beliefs the denial of or limitation of services offered by our government does not, to me, uphold that oath," Ljunggren told committee members in asking lawmakers to defeat the measure.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution means no church can be compelled to perform a religious marriage that falls outside its faith, said Sarah Preston with the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"But government is different," she said. "Public officials should treat everyone equally under the law and a magistrate's oath demands it."

But the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, said the First Amendment means any person can practice their religious beliefs without fear of state reprisal.

"Some of these magistrates and registers of deeds (workers) are concerned that they would be forced to perform what they believe is not a marriage," Creech said in urging the bill's passage. John Rustin with the North Carolina Family Policy Council called the bill a "very reasonable, balanced approach to dealing with a very specific circumstance."

Without siding on the bill, two elected county registers of deeds urged the committee to consider potential consequences of the measure as currently written. Registers of deeds in 42 counties have three or fewer employees, said Caldwell County Register of Deeds Wayne Rash. It could be difficult for some counties to offer licenses should employees claim religious objection, Rash said.

"I think it would behoove the committee to slow down a little bit and look at how and what the practical implications of this bill may be," said Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen. His office issued 3,600 marriage licenses over the past 12 months, including 265 for same-sex couples.

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