Twenty-eight members of the North Carolina Senate are urging the State Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) to immediately revise a recent memorandum that instructs magistrates to perform same-sex weddings or face the loss of their jobs. The AOC sent a guidance memo to court officials across the state on October 14, advising magistrates that refusing to perform same-sex union ceremonies, even for religious reasons, is “grounds for suspension or removal from office, as well as, potential criminal charges.” On October 24, Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and 27 other state senators sent a letter to AOC Director John W. Smith, arguing that the AOC memo “has caused unnecessary confusion and resulted in possible violations of the civil rights of public employees.” The Senate letter characterizes the AOC memo as “at best incomplete and at worst misleading” and urges the AOC to “revise the memorandum to include a comprehensive and correct statement of federal and state law on the doctrine of reasonable accommodation and management flexibility.”
The letter notes that since the AOC issued the controversial memo, “at least two magistrates in Rockingham and Swain counties and possibly more magistrates elsewhere in the State have resigned, citing their religious beliefs, to avoid being fired” for refusing to perform same-sex unions. According to the letter, the AOC memo “ignores federal and state protections afforded to employees who, for reasons of religious faith, cannot participate in the recently court-sanctioned same-sex marriage ceremonies.” It also notes that there are “reasonable, existing solutions available to courthouse officials facing these challenges. North Carolina law affords flexibility to chief district judges, registers of deeds and clerks of court to reconcile the duty to follow the law while ensuring that no courthouse officials or employees are forced to compromise on matters of faith to save their jobs.”
The letter points out that, “in at least two counties, reasonable accommodations were reached among magistrates and registers of deeds using this flexibility.” For example, in Alamance County, Register of Deeds Hugh Webster has stepped in for his employees who are unable to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples for religious reasons. The letter argues, “There is no reason similar accommodations cannot be reached statewide.”
“Every part of the United States Constitution must be read together if our freedoms and institutions are to be meaningfully recognized and liberty is to prevail,” the letter to the AOC concludes. “Our belief is that reasonable people across the State will ensure that events never again reach the point where courthouse officials are asked to sacrifice their religious convictions to keep their jobs.”
In addition to Sen. Berger, the following senators signed the letter urging the AOC to revise its memo to magistrates: Sens. Tom Apodaca (R-Henderson), Austin Allran (R-Catawba), Chad Barefoot (R-Wake), Stan Bingham (R-Davidson), Andrew Brock (R-Davie), Harry Brown (R-Onslow), Bill Cook (R-Beaufort), David Curtis (R-Lincoln), Warren Daniel (R-Burke), Jim Davis (R-Macon), Rick Gunn (R-Alamance), Kathy Harrington (R-Gaston), Ralph Hise, Jr. (R-Mitchell), Neal Hunt (R-Wake), Brent Jackson (R-Sampson), Joyce Krawiec (R-Forsyth), Wesley Meredith (R-Cumberland), Louis Pate (R-Wayne), Ron Rabin (R-Harnett), Shirley Randleman (R-Wilkes), Bob Rucho (R-Mecklenburg), Norm Sanderson (R-Pamlico), Dan Soucek (R-Watauga), Jeff Tarte (R-Mecklenburg), Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph), Tommy Tucker (R-Union), and Trudy Wade (R-Guilford).