Allan Hoyle, of North Carolina, stands with bible in hand in support of Kim Davis at the Rowan County Judicial Center, Sep. 9, 2015. 
Photo by Chris Tilley/Reuters

North Carolina magistrates opt out of performing marriages

As the nation waits to see what Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis will do when she returns to work in northeast Kentucky next week, officials in another county 270 miles away are starting to attract some negative attention themselves for refusing to fulfill their marriage duties on religious grounds.

All four magistrates in McDowell County, North Carolina, have recused themselves from performing marriages based on their religious objections to same-sex nuptials. The move follows the passage of a controversial religious freedom law earlier this year and, according to NC Policy Watch, marks the first reported case in which all the magistrates in one county are refusing to serve gay and lesbian couples seeking to wed.

Unlike in the case of Davis, who spent five full days behind bars for defying a federal court order that she issue marriage licenses to all eligible applicants (including same-sex couples,) the McDowell County magistrates’ actions appear to be lawful – at least, for now.

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In the spring, North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature passed Senate Bill 2, a measure allowing magistrates and registers of deeds to opt out of their marriage duties if doing so were to violate their “sincerely held” religious beliefs. Once those officials recuse themselves, however, the law bars them from performing any marriages for a period of six months – potentially creating significant delays for all couples hoping to marry in the more rural parts of the states.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, vetoed the bill in May. But weeks later, the legislature moved to override that veto, making SB2 law in June.

Chris Sgro, executive director of the LGBT advocacy group Equality NC, called the news out of McDowell County “unconscionable, however sadly not surprising.”

“The intent of Senate Bill 2 has always been clear – to allow for legal discrimination to occur under North Carolina Law,” Sgro said in a statement. He added that Equality NC was “looking into the constitutionality of this legislation.”

Since SB2’s passage, 32 magistrates across North Carolina have recused themselves from performing marriages, WLOS News 13 reported. In order to ensure couples would still be able to receive marriage services at least some of the time in McDowell County, magistrates from nearby have been driving back and forth three times a week to cover for the ones who opted out. The office now offers marriage services four hours a day on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays.