Don't Misuse Religious Freedom to License Public Officials to Discriminate

06/04/2015 09:40 am ET | Updated Jun 04, 2016

On Monday the North Carolina Senate voted to override Governor McCrory's veto of a bill that would authorize government officials across the state to refuse to perform marriages or even issue marriage licenses when they have a religious objection. As a pastor, I consider this bill an affront to both the dignity of all North Carolinians and the principle of religious liberty, and believe that the governor's veto should be sustained.

The bill was prompted by federal court decisions holding that LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) individuals have a constitutional right to get married. That issue is subject to the case that the Supreme Court is expected to decide shortly. Of course, no minsters or other religious officials can be required to perform or recognize any marriage that violates their religious convictions. But public officials must do their jobs without discriminating against any segment of the public regardless of their religious or political beliefs. As Governor McCrory said in explaining his decision to veto the bill, "no public official who voluntarily swears to support and defend the Constitution and to discharge all duties of their office should be exempt from upholding that oath."

The bill wouldn't just apply to officials who object to same-sex marriages. Government officials could exempt themselves from performing an interracial marriage or from issuing a license to people of different religions, or divorced people, or anyone else if they claim to have a religious objection.

In a failed attempt to mask the clear discriminatory intent of the legislation, the bill states that a magistrate who decides not to perform a particular wedding must refrain from performing any marriage for at least six months. If the result is that all officials in a county are precluded from issuing licenses or performing marriages, the chief judge or register is responsible for ensuring that some official can issue licenses and perform marriages at some time. If enforced, this provision could hurt anyone trying to get married in North Carolina, forcing couples to go from official to official or even county to county to find someone who will marry them. So the result of creating a way for magistrates to discriminate against same-sex couples could well be hassles for straight as well as LGBT people.

As a pastor, I certainly agree that the principle of religious liberty must be protected. The freedom of individuals to practice, or not to practice, any religion they choose was a founding principle of our country. Laws that actually protect individuals' exercise of religion prevent the government from infringing on our constitutional rights under the First Amendment. But this bill is a blatant attempt to misuse religious liberty to license public officials to ignore laws they don't like and to discriminate. If this bill becomes law, should we expect next a bill allowing police officers to refuse to investigate robberies at mosques or permitting firefighters to decline to put out fires at synagogues because of religious objections? That is disturbingly similar to the rationale being offered by supporters of this anti-gay bill.

A vote on the override in the House could be as soon as this week, and I urge members of the House not to follow the wrong-headed example of the Senate. Governor McCrory was right to veto the bill. Let's keep his veto in place and avoid letting this discriminatory bill become law.

Reverend Dr. Terence K. Leathers is pastor at Mt. Vernon Christian Church in Clayton, North Carolina and a member of People For the American Way's African American Ministers In Action.