A North Carolina legislative panel has approved a Republican plan that would allow magistrate judges to recuse themselves from officiating any weddings if they have a faith-based opposition to same-sex unions.
The bill, introduced by Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden), was passed on what appeared to be a mostly party-line vote in a Senate Judiciary Committee this morning.
Supporters of the bill say it protects the First Amendment rights of magistrates who, under recent federal court decisions, would otherwise be required to officiate same-sex weddings. Same-sex marriage rights supporters said the proposed legislation would be unconstitutional because it would present opportunities for unfair discrimination.
Sen. Buck Newton (R-Wilson), who presented the plan, said the bill’s authors are seeking to find a legal work around an October 2014 U.S. District Court decision that invalidated North Carolina’s ban on same-sex weddings. More than 20 magistrate judges in the state have resigned since.
“We’ve been thrown a curve-ball, so I think it falls on us to figure out how to comply,” Newton said. “This bill prevents discrimination against judges.”
Under the plan, courts in each county would be required to ensure service availability for same-sex weddings for at least ten hours over at least three days per week. Magistrates who resigned after the state started allowing same-sex marriages could apply for open vacancies and, if re-hired, would be paid for lost wages.
Sen. Angela Bryant (D-Rocky Mount) said the plan would present the possibility for discrimination if a magistrate recuses him or herself from officiating weddings at the time that a same-sex couple applies for one.
George Teague, an attorney representing the North Carolina Association of Registers of Deeds, told the committee that the plan would represent a challenging burden for offices in rural counties because many of them have only three magistrate judges on staff but would still be required to offer wedding services.