A wave of outrage swept the internets last week as the magistrates of McDowell County, North Carolina announced none of them will conduct marriages. They did so under the North Carolina legislature's 2015 law allowing magistrates to refuse civil marriage services to anyone on religious freedom grounds.
Not performing weddings is not the same as not issuing licenses, though. As the accompanying article from Box Turtle Bulletin argues, the county is not preventing people from marrying, as Rowan County, Kentucky is. McDowell County is bringing in magistrates from an adjoining county as needed; there are six county seats from which to choose within 20 to 50 miles of Marion.
In 2014 McDowell County issued a total of 298 wedding licenses, according to the register of deeds, so it's not as dreadful as some have made it out. Not an egalitarian eden, either, but not Kim Davis' turf, either.
McDowell County is not like Rowan County
September 11th, 2015
Following the story of Rowan County, Kentucky, Clerk Kim Davis and her refusal to follow the law and issue marriage licenses to residents of her county, attention has turned to the magistrates in McDowell County, North Carolina. (wlos.com)
Magistrates in McDowell County are refusing to perform same sex marriages.A supervising judge confirmed to News 13 on Thursday that four workers in the office – Hilary Hollified, Thomas Atkinson, Debbie Terrell and Chad Johnson – have recused themselves under the North Carolina’s religious exemption law.
Some are seeing this as discrimination and bigotry just like in Rowan County and Something That Must Be Stopped. I see the situations as very dissimilar and am not much troubled by McDowell County or their magistrates.
Magistrates do not have any gate-keeping duties as to who can marry in the county. Those who choose to can officiate civil marriages, though they are not required to do so (nor, I believe, have they ever been so required). And McDowell County has provided replacements, magistrates from another county, so as to ensure that anyone wishing a civil marriage may have one. No rights are being denied.
But a more important distinction, to me, is the motivation. In McDowell County the issue is “what I must do” while in Rowan County the issue is “what you cannot do”.
For all that Kim Davis protests that she only wants to not have her name associated with marriages of which she disapproves, her actions show a different motive. The minute that her deputy clerks issued marriage licenses without her name – substituting “office of Rowan County” for “office of Kim Davis” – her attorneys insisted that the licenses were invalid. Davis’ goal is not removing herself from association with same-sex marriages but rather it’s prohibiting all such marriages in her county.
There have been a number of judges and magistrates and mayors and other officials across the country who have quietly removed marriage officiation from their list of services in order to avoid participation in same-sex marriages. And while this is a decision that is in conflict with my own values, so long as this is not a significant or relevant part of their duties and so long as an adequate replacement is provided, I am not much inclined to force people to do things that are contrary to their conscience.
Further, I think that throwing energy into coercive efforts (“they must follow my values, not their values, or they should be fired”) distracts from situations that truly are egregious and abusive. It makes our cause seem more about forcing or punishing others and less about achieving freedom for ourselves.
Seeking to block legal public services and deny civil rights, such as the efforts of Kim Davis, is a matter that deserves our attention and our ire. And, rightly, our community fought back and, if polls are correct, we won the debate.
But insisting that individual magistrates personally participate in same-sex marriages does not deserve our time nor serve our cause.