Move over Kim Davis: All magistrates in a North Carolina county have reportedly invoked a religious exemption to opt out of officiating marriages following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of same-sex marriage.
In a development first reported Thursday by Charlotte-based WSOC-TV, all four magistrates in McDowell County — Hilary Hollified, Thomas Atkinson, Debbie Terrell and Chad Johnson — have invoked an exemption under a new state law permitting them to recuse themselves from officiating marriages. The McDowell County Clerk of Superior Court couldn’t immediately be reached to verify the report.
Because the magistrates have invoked this opt out, they aren’t allowed to marry any couple, gay or straight, for a six-month period. At that time, the magistrates either have to refile for an exemption or start facilitating marriages again.
To facilitate marriages as directed by state law, magistrates from Rutherford County have been reportedly filling in since July to provide marriage services in McDowell County. But officials from the neighboring county are only on site for a total of 10 hours a week. According to Citizen Times, McDowell County offers marriage services three days a week: Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from noon to 4 p.m.
The law enabling McDowell County officials to opt out of issuing marriage licenses was known in bill form as Senate Bill 2. The state legislature enacted the measure via an override vote in June after North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory vetoed the legislation.
Sarah Preston, acting executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, told the Blade the decision by each of the county magistrates to invoke an exemption underscores the problems with the state law.
“Our reaction basically is it’s just an example of the administrative nightmare that Senate Bill 2 sets up by allowing government officials to opt out of doing part of their job,” Preston said.
Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrera, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, said her organization believes the law allowing the recusals is unconstitutional.
“We have only so many counties across North Carolina,” Beach-Ferrara said. “It’s entirely possible to have a scenario where no one is prepared to serve any couple, gay or straight. And the way that the county is addressing this is a waste of taxpayer resources to be bringing in a magistrate from another county. It just speaks to a cumbersome work around that’s completely unnecessary if you just focus on public offices providing basic services.”
It’s likely, but uncertain, McDowell County is the only jurisdiction in North Carolina where all officials invoked the exemption under state law.
According to the North Carolina Court System, 32 magistrates as of Thursday have invoked the exemption to stay out of facilitating marriages, but the names of magistrates who’ve recused themselves aren’t public because that is protected by a public records law. The North Carolina Judicial Branch has approximately 670 magistrates statewide.
LGBT advocates in the state are calling on same-sex couples in North Carolina who experience refusals or delays in obtaining a marriage license to report their experience. No lawsuit seeking to overturn the law has yet been filed, advocates say.
The news of all magistrates in McDowell County electing to opt out of marriages breaks as LGBT advocates make the case the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of marriage equality is being widely followed across the country. But resistance to the Supreme Court ruling in certain pockets of the country is challenging the perception of widespread compliance.
The most high-profile case was in Kentucky, where Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis was found in contempt of court and jailed for five nights for refusing to comply with court orders instructing her to issue marriage licenses to all couples regardless of sexual orientation. Meanwhile, an estimated 14 counties in Alabama have ceased marriage operations entirely after the Supreme Court decision.
Preston said she hopes the exemptions invoked in North Carolina aren’t evidence of a growing trend of resistance to the Supreme Court ruling on marriage.
“I think that allowing government officials to pick and choose which jobs they want to perform when they swore an oath to uphold the Constitution is troubling, but obviously there’s a national discussion going on now,” Preston said.
Beach-Ferrara said same-sex couples are still able to wed throughout North Carolina, citing a “constantly steady flow of same-sex couples getting married” in Buncombe County, which encompasses Asheville, N.C.
“That’s the story in most places, that people can go in an do it and there’s no issue,” Beach-Ferrara said. “But part of our work is ensuring that people can go into every single county — whether it’s McDowell County in North Carolina, Rowan County in Kentucky or Marengo County in Alabama — and until we’ve reached that point of services provided in every single county across the South, we have work to do.”
h/t Matt Comer