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Another 'religious freedom' showdown brews in North Carolina

North Carolina’s GOP-controlled state House of Representatives is the only legislative body still standing in the way of an aggressive "religious freedom" bill.

RALEIGH, N.C. -- An aggressive “religious freedom” measure is back on the agenda this week for North Carolina’s Republican-controlled state House of Representatives -- the last legislative body still standing in the way of a bill that could conceivably impact every couple in the state who’s hoping to wed.

The measure, known as Senate Bill 2, would allow magistrates and registers of deeds to refuse to participate in the marriage of any couple whose union violates their “sincerely held religious” beliefs. Once those officials opt out in writing, they cannot perform any of their marriage duties for a period of six months, potentially creating significant delays for all couples hoping to marry in the more rural parts of the state.

“There are only so many people who work in these offices,” Mike Meno, communications director at the ACLU of North Carolina, told msnbc. “If even one or two of them opts out of performing a marriage, that would create very real, practical burdens for local offices. We’ll potentially see scenarios in smaller counties where it is all of a sudden much more difficult for all couples to get married.”

Related: Memories of racist rule refreshed by NC bill

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory vetoed the legislation, saying in a statement two weeks ago that while he personally opposed same-sex marriage on religious grounds, “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 Republican-controlled state Senate, however, voted to override that veto last Monday. The state House was scheduled to do the same two days later, but recessed for the week without taking action on the bill -- presumably because Republican leaders feared they did not have the three-fifths support of the chamber necessary to override McCrory’s veto.

Lawmakers in the state House reconvene Monday evening, with SB2 at the top of their agenda. Because the session does not end until fall, however, it could be weeks before Republican leaders put the bill to an override vote.

While SB2 was plainly intended to protect those magistrates who have a problem with same-sex marriage, which became legal in North Carolina last fall, critics warn that the bill would actually harm every couple in the state by effectively allowing clerks to refuse to license interracial or interfaith marriages, for example -- as long as those clerks claimed a “sincerely held religious objection.”

Such was the experience of Carol Ann and Thomas Person, two legally blind North Carolinians who in 1976 -- nine years after the Supreme Court found anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional -- were denied a marriage license by not one, but two magistrates because of the color of their skin.

“The magistrate told us that marrying an interracial couple went against his religious beliefs,” Person wrote in an op-ed last week for The News & Observer. “Our happy day quickly turned into a nightmare.”

The couple was eventually able to get married after a judge ruled that those magistrates had violated the law. But SB2, Person wrote, “would give magistrates the ability to discriminate against couples exactly the same way they discriminated against Thomas and me almost 40 years ago.”

Though part of a wave of GOP-backed “religious freedom” measures considered by many as a broad effort to undermine newly-won LGBT rights in red states, SB2 is arguably more sweeping than any of the other bills to become law this session.

“SB2 would create a very dangerous precedent,” Meno said. “This is a law that could be used against interracial couples, couples of different religions, divorced couples, virtually anybody.”

Earlier this year, North Carolina lawmakers tried to pass a different “religious freedom” measure similar to the one that became the target of widespread condemnation in Indiana. Facing opposition from businesses, however, including IBM and American Airlines, Republican House Speaker Tim Moore declared that bill dead for the session.