Legislators return to Raleigh for first workday of session

Published 12:10 am Thursday, January 29, 2015

By Josh Bergeron


RALEIGH — The North Carolina General Assembly reconvened Wednesday for its first workday with local representatives receiving committee assignments and gay marriage taking center stage.

Both of Rowan County’s representatives — Carl Ford, R-76, and Harry Warren, R-77 — were named chair of at least one committee and named to more than a half dozen each. In the first workday since November’s elections, the Senate’s top leader pushed for religious exemptions for some court officials for marriage duties.

Ford, named a chairman of the local government committee, was appointed to eight total committees. Ford said his committee assignments were essentially the same as last year with the exception of the committee on community college education. Some of his committee assignments received slight name changes from the last session.

Local government is the committee Ford said he’s most passionate about.

“All across the state, representatives tell us we can pass all the greatest legislation in the world, but, when they get home, the citizens are talking about local government and the issues that accompany them,” Ford said. “Almost every representative I’ve spoken with says the most correspondence they receive is on local bills.”

His other committee assignments include: Appropriations, Appropriations Committee on Transportation, Elections, Health, State Personnel and Transportation.

With appointments to two transportation-related committees, Ford said he hopes to be able to speed up projects on St. Matthews Church Road, Interstate 85 and a proposed Old Beatty Ford Road interchange.

Warren was named chairman of Public Utilities. He received seven total appointments, including: Aging, Finance, Elections, Insurance, Judiciary IV and Local Government.

He didn’t have a particular favorite of his assignments, but said being chair of the Public Utilities was important from a functionality perspective. He said Duke Energy buying a certain percentage of its power from renewable or green energy sources would be one example of a matter the Public Utilities Committee would consider.

“We’re going to have a really good session and continue making some adjustments to things we’ve passed in the last couple sessions,” Warren said.

He said Medicaid is an issue that would likely be discussed in depth during the current legislative session.

But, on Wednesday, the issue was gay marriage.

Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, filed a bill to allow magistrates to refuse to preside at same-sex weddings and assistant and deputy registers of deeds to not issue licenses based on “sincerely held religious objection.” Any such recusal must last at least six months, and the officials couldn’t be involved in traditional marriages either.

“What we’re talking about is trying to protect or at least recognize and provide an accommodation for people who have sincerely held beliefs that are protected by the First Amendment,” Berger said in an interview with The Associated Press. “So what we’re trying to do is find a balance.”

Democratic lawmakers and the gay-rights group Equality North Carolina said at a news conference such a recusal measure is discrimination in disguise against gays and lesbians.

“In North Carolina, gay marriage is legal and the magistrates who have sworn to administer these laws must do so equally and for everyone,” said Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, a former assistant district attorney. He added that as an appointed prosecutor, he couldn’t choose or refuse to prosecute anyone based on personal religious beliefs.

Berger had said he’d file a recusal bill after federal judges last October struck down North Carolina’s 2012 constitutional amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman and a Rockingham County judge resigned in protest. Legislative leaders are still fighting for the amendment’s legality in court. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to weigh in this year on similar bans in other states as judges have thrown them out in a flurry of recent rulings.

Berger said requiring the exemption for all marriages ensures court officials aren’t picking and choosing whom they will wed. But Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, said it doesn’t assuage the ulterior motive of bias and could lead to a slippery slope of court officials refusing all sorts of expected duties.

The bill also makes clear the elected register of deeds and the chief District Court judge for each county are still obligated to carry out marriage duties for all. And any magistrate who was fired or resigned — presumably for religious objections — since early October won’t be penalized if they seek a vacant magistrate position. Berger said he expected the Senate Republican Caucus would support his bill.

Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, said Wednesday he would file this session a separate “religious freedom” bill similar to a federal measure that would require government to show “a compelling interest” before a law could provide a significant obstacle for a citizen with strong religious beliefs to carry out.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246