Senate committee passes bill allowing marriage license recusal

Published 12:10 am Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A state senate committee passed a bill Tuesday allowing North Carolina magistrates and registers of deeds to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses because of religious beliefs.

The bill’s primary sponsor is the senate’s President Pro-Tem Phil Berger. One of the many co-sponsors is Sen. Andrew Brock, a Republican who represents most of Rowan County. The bill was first filed in late January. While Brock says the bill protects religious freedoms, Registers of Deeds such as Rowan’s John Brindle wonder how the bill might affect staffing levels.

The bill’s text states: “Every magistrate has the right to recuse from performing all lawful marriages under this chapter based upon any sincerely held religious objection. Such recusal shall be upon notice to the chief district court judge and is in effect for at least six months from the time delivered to the chief district court judge.”

Any recusal by a magistrate or register of deeds, would be in effect for six months and prevent the issuance of any licenses.

Brock said he signed on to be a co-sponsor after being told multiple registers of deeds and magistrates were uncomfortable with issuing same-sex marriage licenses.

“You had many of our workers that felt very uncomfortable, it went against their religious beliefs and they wanted to recuse themselves of [issuing marriage licenses],” Brock said. “Also, they were told if they recuse themselves, then they would lose their jobs. North Carolinians have religious liberty and religious freedom and they should not be held to a standard which they don’t believe in.”

Brock said the senate bill specifically pertained to the fact that same-sex marriage is legal in North Carolina. He added that the bill wouldn’t make same-sex marriage illegal, but he repeatedly referred to a 2012 North Carolina constitutional amendment that made it unconstitutional for the state to recognize or perform same-sex marriages or civil unions. It was passed in May 2012 by more than 60 percent of North Carolina voters.

In October 2014, a U.S. district court judge declared the amendment unconstitutional.

Brock said the bill would be a form of compromise — legalizing same-sex marriage, but allowing some to opt out of issuing licenses — until the U.S. Supreme Court makes a final ruling.

When asked about the senate bill, Brindle declined to say whether he had an opinion on his staff asking for a recusal. He also wouldn’t say how he felt personally about the bill.  The N.C. Association of Register of Deeds would meet in March to form an opinion on the bill’s content, Brindle said.

“One of my concerns is staffing issues,” Brindle said. “If the whole offices decides to recuse themselves, who’s going to handle the process in Rowan County? As an association we are going to get together and have an answer.”

Brindle said the issuance of marriage licenses, specifically for same-sex couples, hasn’t been a problem since he was elected and took office in December.

“There’s a lot to think about,” he said. “It’s more than just stepping back and deciding not to do it. It could cause issues with staffing and all of the marriage licenses that come across the counter.”

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246