North Carolina’s same-sex marriage ban is probably history. But the Supreme Court’s decision to let a lower court ruling striking the ban doesn’t sit so well with the Religious Right, and thanks to the efforts of local extremists, a new front in the civil rights battle has emerged: religious refusals.
Case in point: the saga of Elizabeth City, N.C, Magistrate Gary Littleton.On Monday, Littleton refused to perform the wedding of Williams Locklear and Randall Jackson. WGHP-8, a local FOX affiliate, reported that Littleton cited his religious beliefs as justification for his refusal.“My understanding is that a couple came and asked to be married and he refused to marry them based upon his, I guess, religious or moral principles,” Judge Christopher Bean, Littleton’s superior, told press. “I suppose that it can be construed that he broke the law because that is a duty that the magistrate has, to perform marriages.”Bean also noted that Littleton had already received official instructions to marry same-sex couples. He can therefore hardly claim any confusion about his legal responsibilities. The judge added that although the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts hasn’t yet released a final memo on the topic, he doesn’t expect the rules to change.“I believe the final memo will say, without any question, that [same-sex marriage] is the duty of the magistrate,” he concluded.Locklear and Jackson could file a formal complaint against Littleton, but they’ve indicated to press that they don’t intend to do so. If they did, Bean said Littleton would be out of a job – although he’d almost certainly find a new career as the Religious Right’s newest cause célèbre.
Let’s be crystal clear about one thing: No pastor can be compelled to marry a same-sex couple. But Littleton is a government official. Magistrates work for the courts, and part of their duties is to officiate at the marriages of couples who meet the legal qualifications to marry. Religious groups have a legal right to discriminate in some cases. Government never does.
So far, Littleton is the only known local magistrate to refuse to perform a same-sex marriage after the Supreme Court’s refusal to reinstate marriage bans. But it’s unlikely that he’ll be the last, and observers of the Religious Right – including this blog – suspect that so-called “religious refusals” will become the movement’s latest tactic to erode marriage rights.
We've already seen glimpses of this tactic in action. Earlier this year, several states considered and, in some cases, passed sweeping laws that would have granted business owners the right to refuse service to LGBT people – and anyone else who fell short of their religious standards. Arizona’s bill received the most attention, and after it became to the subject of national controversy, Gov. Jan Brewer (R) refused to sign it. Other, similar bills died quieter deaths.
But the Religious Right keeps the subject alive. At this year’s Values Voters Summit, several cases involving small business owners who refused to serve LGBT people were touted as evidence that Christianity is under drastic attack.The owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa, Aaron and Melissa Klein, appeared on a Values Voters panel to discuss same-sex marriage. The state of Oregon investigated the couple and found they had violated the Oregon Equality Act of 2007 by refusing to bake a cake for a lesbian couple. The Kleins eventually shut their business rather than provides cakes for LGBT people, and are now fighting a lawsuit from the state.
And in Elane Photography v. Willock, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruling that found a wedding photographer had violated the state’s anti-discrimination laws by refusing to photograph a same-sex wedding. The Supreme Court decided not to overturn that verdict, much to the Religious Right’s chagrin.Those are only the two most prominent religious refusals cases of 2014. A Colorado cake baker and a Kentucky T-shirt printing company have also recently been found in violation of local anti-discrimination ordinances.To supporters of marriage equality, these are the just consequences of choosing to discriminate against a segment of the population. To the Religious Right, of course, it’s simply fuel for the narrative that conservative Christians are persecuted by the American government. As marriage equality rolls into force, expect that narrative to become even louder—and for the country’s Gary Littletons to grow in number.