“Of course, the aim of a constitutional democracy is to safeguard the rights of the minority and avoid the tyranny of the majority.” — Dr. Cornell West
Today the North Carolina House of Representatives voted to reaffirm its support for Senate Bill 2, bipartisan legislation that protects the First Amendment rights of Magistrates and Register of Deeds employees. (Magistrates are state employees empowered to perform certain civil functions, including marriages).
The legislation preserves the marriage rights of the majority — while also making it clear that state employees with sincerely-held religious objections to performing, for example, genderless marriages (although, admittedly, they may be in the minority) can recuse themselves without fear of losing their jobs, loss of wages or even facing criminal prosecution.
Those employees recusing themselves cannot “pick and choose” what marriages they will not perform, however, and would be required to opt-out of performing all marriage ceremonies for a period of six months. The new law does not discriminate.
Although Governor McCrory vetoed the legisation on May 29, the Senate voted to override his objections on June 1st. Today’s override vote in the House solidifies Senate Bill 2 as the law of the land in North Carolina.
The new law is entirely consistent with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal law which outlaws any discrimination in the workplace based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Section 703 (a) made it unlawful for an employer to “fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions or privileges or employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
The term “religion” as defined by federal law — and according to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission — “includes all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business” (emphasis added).
Senate Bill 2, then, is a common-sense compromise between conflicting rights — striking a balance that allows the “reasonable accommodation” called for under the Civil Rights Act while at the same time preserving the ability of everyone who is legally eligible to get married to do so [Editor’s Note: Section 7A-292(b) of the new law explicitly states that “the chief district court judge shall ensure that marriages before a magistrate are available to be performed at least a total of 10 hours per week, over at least three business days per week.” No one choosing to be married by a magistrate will be turned away.]
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees “the free exercise of religion.” And Article 1, Section 13 of the North Carolina Constitution protects the “inalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences” and states, “no human authority shall, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience.”
“Religious freedom is a fundamental right guaranteed under our state and federal constitutions — and one that our state’s public servants shouldn’t have to leave at the door,” said Senate Leader Phil Berger, who sponsored the legislation. “This bill strikes a critical balance to make sure the freedoms granted to some under recent court orders do not erase the constitutionally-protected rights of others.”
Senator Berger is referring to the fact that a number of North Carolina magistrates were forced to resign from their jobs last year after the state Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) advised that no accommodation could be made for their religious beliefs after a federal district court decision which overruled our state’s definition of marriage. Since the AOC failed to provide any guidance on existing federal and state protections afforded to these employees, the General Assembly was compelled to act.
“Bear in mind this sacred principle: that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect and to violate would be oppression.” —Thomas Jefferson