- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 27, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina legislators neared final approval Wednesday on legislation allowing some North Carolina court officials to opt out of same-sex marriage duties based on “sincerely held religious” objections.

The House, in a largely party-line vote of 65-45, gave its tentative support to let magistrates and some registers of deeds employees have the option, but they would have to stop performing all marriage duties - for gay and heterosexual couples.

The Senate has already approved the bill, which came from Republicans after gay marriage was legalized in North Carolina last October. The measure now needs just one more House vote scheduled for Thursday before it goes to Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk. He’s expressed opposition to the religious exemption idea but hasn’t said whether he would veto it.

Only Utah has passed a similar law allowing government officials to refuse to marry couples for religious reasons, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Oklahoma and Texas have passed laws allowing religious organizations to choose not to solemnize marriages.

In North Carolina, each county’s register of deeds office issues marriage licenses, and magistrates are authorized to preside over civil marriage ceremonies.

Bill supporters say all gay couples will still be able to get married because the elected register of deeds and the chief District Court judge for each county would fill in to carry out the duties if necessary. This ensures that any couple can obtain a marriage license and be married in all 100 counties, said Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union, who is shepherding the bill through the House.

“It’s very well-drawn to provide a constitutional protection while balancing the same constitutionally protected religious beliefs,” Arp said during committee debate earlier in the day.

Federal laws already prevent government workers from being fired because of an individual’s religion, so North Carolina should set up similar “reasonable accommodations” for its employees, said Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake.

Critics said the measure was merely discrimination in disguise for gay couples whose marriages have been found to be equal under the law compared to opposite-sex partners. Several people who opposed the bill likened it to efforts 50 years ago to prohibit interracial marriages.

“All eyes … are on us today,” Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, warned colleagues, adding that the bill is the “newest abandonment of equal justice under the law.”

Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, said that a gay couple going to the magistrate’s office would be inconvenienced if that magistrate, who took an oath to uphold the U.S. and state constitutions, decides on religious objection not to marry them.

“They shouldn’t have to wait any longer than a heterosexual couple should,” Martin said.

Some magistrates resigned after the North Carolina court system told them refusing to discharge their new marriage duties would be grounds for suspension, removal from office or possible criminal charges. The resignations led Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, to file the bill.

The debate devolved into a passionate discussion about religious beliefs, with some Republican supporters of the measure saying they were following biblical principles that marriage is only between a man and a woman.

“It is goal of the secular left to destroy the family and to destroy the institution of marriage,” said Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham.

Democratic Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, took issue with that accusation. She said she was a practicing Baptist in a congregation that welcomes gays and lesbians, and that people shouldn’t be told that their sexual orientation distances them from God.

“We are born creations of God,” Insko said.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, McCrory declined to speak further about the magistrate bill, referring to previous remarks. He told a Charlotte radio station in March: “I don’t think you should have an exemption or a carve-out when you swore an oath to the constitution of North Carolina or to the Constitution of the United States of America.”

One Democrat voted Wednesday for bill, and five Republicans voted no.

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