Sometimes, in the course of writing columns about “religious freedom” laws like the one Gov. Mike Pence tried to pass in Indiana, I’ve mused about what would have happened if such laws had been in effect in 1967, back when the Supreme Court decided Loving v. Virginia. It was in Loving—decided 48 years ago today—that the court ruled it unconstitutional for states to prevent mixed-race marriages. I asked my question rhetorically, hypothetically, to try to highlight the absurdity of states where same-sex marriage is the law also passing laws to permit certain citizens to flout that law.
In North Carolina, it isn’t rhetorical or hypothetical anymore.
On Thursday, the state’s general assembly overrode an earlier gubernatorial veto of Senate Bill 2, meaning that civil magistrates can now refuse to perform not only same-sex marriages if they say that doing so violates their religious beliefs, but any union of which they disapprove on religious grounds.
The vote happened first thing in the morning. “They gaveled us right to order, and they didn’t allow any time for debate,” says assembly member Mary Price “Pricey” Harrison, Democrat of Greensboro. In North Carolina, an override is achieved with three-fifths of present and voting members. SB2 had originally passed the assembly by 67-43, which is 61 percent. Thursday’s vote was 69-4, or 62.7 percent. Harrison told me that some Republicans who might have voted against the bill weren’t present, and that a few members were off at their children’s high-school graduations.
Here’s the background. The state started out with a broad religious-freedom restoration bill of the sort becoming law in more conservative states. There was an outcry; after some wrangling, legislators settled on this bill, limited to magistrates. So this is a “compromise” bill. Remember that North Carolina’s legislature and its governor, Pat McCrory, are about as right-wing as any in the country—all those “Moral Monday” protests have come in response to radical actions the governor and legislature have taken on education, voting rights, the environment, and other matters.
So when legislators walked away from the broader religious-freedom act, they settled on SB2. Some compromise. “The legislation is in some ways even worse than Indiana’s,” Christopher Sgro, the executive director of Equality North Carolina, told me. “These are taxpayer-funded government employees.”
The law is really aimed at same-sexers, but of course legislators knew that they couldn’t single gay people out by name or category, because that would have been too obviously discriminatory. The only way to get around this was to write it more broadly, so the law says: “Every magistrate has the right to recuse from performing all lawful marriages under this Chapter based on sincerely held religious objection.”
Read that again. Recuse from “lawful marriages.” In other words, disobey the law. So, magistrates who still think the races shouldn’t mix can now take that brave stand with the weight of the law behind them. What about a Southern Baptist marrying a Jew? OK, it’s probably a stretch to think anyone would object to that. But what about a Southern Baptist marrying a Muslim? A Muslim marrying an atheist? A citizen marrying a non-citizen in what appears to the magistrate to be mostly a matter of helping the noncitizen gain permanent resident status? As a practical matter, experts think recusals will likely be limited to same-sex marriages, not that that makes this any better, but we’re about to find out what’s theoretical and what’s not.
This is shocking stuff. It’s pretty much at the level of George Wallace defying integration, albeit without the pulse-quickening, schoolhouse-door histrionics. Except this is arguably more extreme because here, North Carolina isn’t defying Washington, but itself. The state passed a ban on same-sex marriage back in 1996 and amended the state constitution in 2011 to emphasize the point. But then, a mostly religious coalition of North Carolinians brought suit, and last year a federal judge seated in North Carolina ruled the state’s ban unconstitutional. The governor, extremist though he is, knew enough law not to fight it, and indeed knew enough law to veto the magistrates’ bill when it came before him.
But now the legislature has spoken, or re-spoken, and overridden him. “It’s unconstitutional, and we all know it’s unconstitutional, and a court is going to throw it out,” Pricey Harrison told me. “It’s a heck of a way to run a legislature.”
The point needs making: Laws like this magistrates’ law and those Pence-style religious-freedom laws have turned the original intention of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 completely on its head. That law was meant to protect the religious rights of minorities. It emanated from a lawsuit brought by two Native American men who took peyote, they claimed, as a religious rite. The Supreme Court backed them, and then President Clinton signed the RFRA. Protecting minorities from the tyranny of the majority has a long history in this country, back to the famous Federalist No. 10, and in fact the concept goes back to ancient Greece. But now, the majority (or near-majority, depending on which poll you believe) in North Carolina that opposes same-sex marriage can bully the minority.
Now, imagine if these religious-conscience laws had existed in 1967. How long would it have taken for interracial marriage to become the accepted norm in the South? As it happens, we have a partial answer to this question in the form of a story that emanates, again, from North Carolina. In 1976, Carol Ann and Thomas Person, she white and he black, walked into their local courthouse to get their marriage license. As she recently told the story in a column in the Raleigh News & Observer, the magistrate said no. A second magistrate on duty said the same thing, and one of them “took out a Bible and began to lecture us about their religious views and why Thomas and I should not be together.” This was nearly a full decade after Loving.
A court ruled against those two magistrates, and the Persons were soon married. Presumably, a court will toss this magistrates’ law, too. But who’ll be denied a license in the meantime? And what constitutes religious freedom, and what is simply bigotry?