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NC Senate gives approval to opt-out for certain court officials from marriage duties

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RALEIGH, North Carolina — Some North Carolina court officials could opt out of marriage duties — including same-sex weddings — under legislation given state Senate approval Wednesday following a debate weighing centuries-old religious liberties with newly-expanded rights to marry.

The bill gives magistrates and workers in register of deeds offices the ability to remove themselves from working on marriages because of religious objections — presumably for their opposition to gay marriage. At least a half-dozen other states are considering similar exemptions, according to the Human Rights Campaign, which supports gay marriage.

The measure, now headed to the House, was filed after federal judges in October overturned North Carolina's same-sex marriage ban. That prohibition was added to the state Constitution in a 2012 referendum. A handful of magistrates resigned as the state court system told them they were obligated to carry out all marriages.

A majority of senators rejected arguments that the exemptions for "sincerely held religious objection" amounts to discrimination of gay and lesbian couples.

All gay couples will still be able to get married, said Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, the bill's chief sponsor. But religious belief also must be honored, he said.

"We're not saying that the First Amendment outweighs any other rights that exist," Berger said, but "there should be an accommodation when there is a conflict between rights."

Magistrates and assistant and deputy registers of deeds who bring religious objections would have to stop marriage duties for all comers for at least six months. The elected register of deeds and the chief District Court judge for each county would fill in to carry out the duties if necessary.

Gay rights groups and several lawmakers said the General Assembly are seeking to make gay couples second-class citizens.

"It's distasteful. It's offensive and its bad public policy," said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham.

The rationale suggested by the bill could lead to other government employees seeking religious exemptions, according to Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake. For example, Stein said, a Revenue Department worker may feel uneasy reviewing the tax return of a same-sex couple filing jointly based on religious belief, or a North Carolina Zoo employee may seek to refuse to sell a family pass to a family led by same-sex parents.

"We don't have the right to pick and choose who we serve for the public," Stein said. "It's public services, not selective services."

Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, said the language would be struck down in court because it was discriminatory, and others suggested the bill's similarities to past attempts at justifying racial bias.

Wednesday's 32-16 vote was largely along party lines, with Republicans present voting yes and Democrats voting no, save for two on each side. The Republicans voting no were Sens. John Alexander of Wake County and Jeff Tarte of Mecklenburg County.

Sen. Ben Clark of Hoke County, who with Sen. Joel Ford of Mecklenburg County were the two Democrats voting yes, said on the floor the measure was a fair and reasonable compromise.

"I know discrimination when I see it," said Clark, who is black and recalled times of feeling racial bias. "This is not discrimination."

The bill also requires each county to provide at least 10 hours of time and three days a week for marriages to be performed.

Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, the House's No. 2 leader, backs the recusal idea.

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