Last week the North Carolina House voted to override Gov. Pat McCrory's veto of Senate Bill 2, titled "Magistrates Recusal for Civil Ceremonies." The bill, which is now law, allows magistrates and employees of county register of deeds offices to recuse themselves without penalty from "performing duties related to marriage ceremonies due to sincerely held religious objection." In other words, certain state employees who personally object to same-sex marriages can now claim a religious exemption from their normal, sworn duties.
Critics of the law have claimed--rightly, I think--that it does little more than provide moral and legal cover for discrimination. Rep. Larry Hall (D - Durham), for instance, has said that allowing magistrates and other employees to opt out creates "a situation where people can discriminate against other members of our society at their discretion and not be disciplined." Even Pat McCrory--whom no one would ever accuse of leaning to the left--seemed to get that point. When he initially vetoed the bill, he noted that "opinions on same-sex marriage come from sincerely held religious beliefs that marriage is between a man and a woman," but went on to emphasize that, despite opinions, we are "a nation and a state of laws."
Supporters of the law see matters differently, of course. For them, the issue is about supporting religious freedom, which in this case requires making certain accommodations in the public work place. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R - Rockingham), the architect of the law, has said of it, "Religious freedom is a fundamental right guaranteed under our state and federal constitutions--and one that our state's public servants shouldn't have to leave at the door."
Moreover, the advocates of the law tout what they see as its limited scope: the law is designed, they argue, to protect religious rights without necessarily infringing on the rights of others. Same-sex couples still have the right to get married, it's just that government officials can't be compelled to participate in any part of the process. In the event that a magistrate refuses to perform a marriage, or an employee of a register of deeds office refuses to issue a marriage license, someone else would simply step in. If all magistrates in a county sought to recuse themselves through religious objection, then the chief judge would request an outside magistrate; likewise, if all employees of a register of deeds office did the same, the elected register would issue the license.
It's possible, of course, to construct scenarios that would restrict, or at least delay, a couple's rights, simply because the expediency of the whole process is partially left up to individual whim. The law, in other words, has numerous grey areas, and it's important to stress that these are the result of individual opinion, dressed up in the language of religious freedom, adding an extra, unnecessary bureaucratic layer to an already bureaucratic process.
All of which is ironic, since the law's backers tend overwhelmingly to cringe at such unnecessary bureaucracy or, as it's often otherwise referred to, "government waste." Phil Berger certainly doesn't like it--at least that's what he claims. He stresses that his goal as a lawmaker is to "cut wasteful government spending, lower taxes, and lessen burdensome regulations." Indeed, "especially during these challenging economic times," we need "to right-size state government." Only that will spur economic development and job creation in the private sector.
Never mind that laws that appear designed to discriminate against gay and lesbian individuals haven't gone over well with the business community as of late. The law also enshrines "government waste" as business as usual. It's hard to come by too many better examples of "wasteful government spending" than paying state employees for job duties--duties that, it must be emphasized, correspond to a freely-taken oath--they are unwilling to perform.
If we find out that all runs smoothly even with a few, or maybe numerous, recusals, then perhaps it's time "right-size" magistrate and county register of deeds offices in North Carolina. I doubt that will happen, because it seems that "wasteful government spending" is fine when it's used for discrimination.
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