RALEIGH --A measure allowing some court officials to refuse to perform gay marriage responsibilities because of their religious beliefs became law in North Carolina on Thursday, with the state House voting to override the governor's veto of the bill.
The Senate had voted to do the same with Republican Gov. Pat McCrory's veto a week ago. Thursday's House vote of 69-41 was just over the three-fifths majority needed. Ten House members were absent and didn't vote.
"We owe more to the citizens of North Carolina and the value of an oath," said Representative Larry Hall, a Democrat from Durham, in response to the vote.
The law, taking effect immediately, means some register of deeds workers who assemble licenses and magistrates to solemnize civil marriages can decide to stop performing all marriages if they hold a "sincerely held religious objection."
The law "protects sincerely held religious beliefs while also ensuring that magistrates are available in all jurisdictions to perform lawful marriages," House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said in a statement.
Gay rights groups and Democrats who opposed the bill said after the vote that litigation challenging the law was likely to come soon. Republicans supporting the measure said federal laws provided religious accommodations to government officials, in keeping with the U.S. and state constitutions.
Before North Carolina, only Utah had passed such a similar exemption for court officials, earlier this year.
McCrory had said no one who takes a government oath should be able to avoid performing the duties that it requires.
"It's a disappointing day for the rule of law and the process of passing legislation in North Carolina," McCrory said in a statement. McCrory was unhappy with nearly two weeks of delay on the House override vote, while Democrats complained the GOP used a parliamentary maneuver Thursday to abridge debate.
The law says court officials who disclose a "sincerely held religious objection" must stop performing marriage duties for both gay and heterosexual couples for at least six months. The chief District Court judge or the county register of deeds - both elected officials - would fill in on marriages if needed.
Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, introduced the bill shortly after federal rulings last October overturned North Carolina's voter-approved constitutional ban on gay marriage. Berger responded to several magistrates who resigned when the state's top court administrator wrote in a memo that those who declined to officiate for same-sex couples could be punished, terminated or face charges.
"It's the way employment law has worked for more than 50 years and it was only in this misguided memo ... that even started this issue," said Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, a key supporter of the law.
In his May 28 veto message, McCrory said many North Carolina residents, including him, believe marriage is between a man and a woman. But "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," McCrory wrote.
While the Senate overturned McCrory's veto quickly, House Republicans put off a vote for several days because some supporters of the original bill were absent. Others were on the fence, according to lawmakers.
Opponents said the bill created a new form of discrimination similar to biases of a generation ago against multiracial marriages. They also said the bill didn't prevent delays for gay couples getting married if a court official suddenly disclosed a religious objection when a couple approached the office counter of the magistrate or a register, particularly in smaller counties with smaller staffs.
The state ACLU urged people who encountered "new hurdles" getting married to contact its office. "This shameful backlash against equality will make it harder for all couples in our state to marry," state Executive Director Sarah Preston said.
Rep. Cecil Brockman, D-Guilford, apologized to all lesbian and gay couples in North Carolina for the House's action. "Your love is not different than anybody else's love in this state," he said at a news conference.
McCrory's decision put him at odds with social conservatives aligned with Republicans. Concerned Women for America accused McCrory of betraying state residents and forcing court officials to violate their consciences.
"It's hard to believe that any governor - much less a conservative one - would veto a bill protecting the religious freedoms of his constituents," North Carolina Values Coalition Executive Director Tami Fitzgerald said.
Three Democrats joined all but three Republicans present in voting for the override.
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