Days after a federal judge struck down North Carolina’s gay marriage ban, a local magistrate in the state has refused to perform a same-sex marriage, making national headlines and bringing new attention to a growing movement of religiously-motivated civil disobedience.
An unnamed magistrate at the Pasquotank County Courthouse in Elizabeth City, N.C. refused to marry William Locklear and Randall Jackson. The magistrate reportedly told them, “I won’t be performing your marriage because of my religious beliefs.”
The Virginian-Pilot reported that Locklear and Jackson have been together for 31 years and approached the courthouse the first full business day after a federal judge removed the state’s gay marriage ban. But they were turned away at the courthouse.
Supporters of gay marriage aren't too concerned by the magistrate's refusal.
“We’re in a time of transition in the country in regard to marriage for same-sex couples,” James Esseks, director of the ACLU LGBT Project, says. “Allowing same-sex couples to marry, there will be a bunch of people for whom this is new…so there are going to be some new discussions people have to have.”
The magistrate’s refusal to perform the marriage is part of a small, but growing trend of religiously motivated civil disobedience. Religious conservatives, such as Pat Buchanan, and right-leaning sites, such as American Thinker, have begun espousing “massive civil disobedience” to fight same-sex marriage.
American Thinker calls it a “refusal...to help in the celebration of something that is unconscionable to the Christian proprietors, which would require them to at least implicitly endorse that which they believe to be morally wrong.”
How often does this kind of civil disobedience happen?
Not much, it turns out.
“There are very few circumstances in which a magistrate said they won’t issue a license or won’t perform ceremony,” says Mr. Esseks. “They understand it is part of their job description.”
Nonetheless, the ACLU says it is seeing increasing instances of discrimination based on religious objections, including bridal salons, photo studios, and reception halls closing their doors to same-sex couples planning weddings.
But Esseks says he doesn’t often hear about civil servants, like the North Carolina magistrate, refusing to do their job.
“These people have a job to do for the state,” he says. “They may have their own personal views about a whole range of things, but when they go to work they go to work to serve everybody, they need to provide government services to everybody regardless of sexual orientation, race, gender, or religion.”
Refusing to perform a same-sex marriage in a church is different from refusing to perform one in a state courthouse, he added.
“No church official is going to be forced ever to perform [a same-sex marriage]. There’s a big difference between church officials and civil servants.”
In fact, citing religion to perform acts of civil disobedience is nothing new.
In the 1960s, institutions and individuals refused to obey laws requiring integration because they believed races should be separate. In some cases, religiously affiliated universities refused to admit students who engaged in interracial dating, and business owners refused to serve black patrons in designated white-only areas.
And in an echo of the North Carolina magistrate’s refusal to perform the same-sex marriage, Esseks said there have also been situations in the past where county clerks and magistrates have refused to perform marriages for interracial couples.
For religious conservatives, declining to serve same-sex couples is an act of conscience and a refusal to obey what they view as unjust laws. Earlier this year, the Arizona legislature considered the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which would allow business owners to cite religious beliefs to discriminate against gays. It was the first of 10 such proposed bills in Republican-controlled states.
In August, New Mexico's Supreme Court ruled on a case where a photography studio refused to shoot photos of a commitment ceremony of two women. The Court ruled that "a commercial photography business that offers its services to the public, thereby increasing its visibility to potential clients," is subject to state anti-discrimination laws "and must serve same-sex couples on the same basis that it serves opposite-sex couples."
Organizations like the ACLU view any refusal to serve same-sex couples as an act of discrimination.
As for official reaction in Pasquotank County, they're just concerned that if more magistrates refuse to perform marriages due to religious beliefs, they may have a bureaucratic bottleneck on their hands.
As Pasquotank County Clerk of Superior Court Connie Thornley told the Virginian-Pilot, “If more than one magistrate resigns over his or her beliefs, it could lead to a shortage.
[Editor's note: The online site 'Right Wing Watch' was misidentified in the original version of this article.]