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Same-sex marriages cause Swain magistrate to resign

fr magistrateIn the short walk from the doors of the Swain County Courthouse to the steps outside it, a couple of people stopped Gilbert Breedlove to shake his hand, ask him if it was true he was resigning his post as magistrate judge and express support. After holding the job for nearly 24 years, this was the last day that Breedlove would spend his working hours in the courthouse.

Breedlove tendered his resignation Oct. 20, just 10 days after a federal judge in North Carolina struck down the state’s ban on marriages for same-sex couples but before he’d been asked to perform one himself. He’d been thinking about resigning, ever since the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a similar law in Virginia, setting the stage for similar rulings nationwide. 

The reason? 

“Based on religious objection,” Breedlove said. “I don’t believe that I can do that from a Biblical standpoint, marry a man and a man and a woman and a woman.”

When he’s not at the courthouse, Breedlove is the pastor of a Baptist congregation, and has been for 17 years. With a strong belief in the Bible as the word of God, Breedlove’s faith holds that homosexual practice is a sin. 

“I have to either choose to compromise and go ahead and do it or not compromise and stand on my faith, and that’s what I’ve chosen to do,” Breedlove said. 

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As a magistrate, one of Breedlove’s job duties is to perform courthouse weddings. His is one of two positions that handles weddings — the register of deeds issues and files marriage license applications. After the ruling on same-sex marriage, the North Carolina Court System sent out a memo making it clear that magistrates would not be able to opt out of officiating marriage ceremonies between same-sex couples. 

“Under the ruling now binding upon the State of North Carolina, to refuse to do so violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution,” the memo reads, referencing the 14th amendment, which says that states cannot deny any of their citizens “the equal protection of the laws.”

Just like a magistrate refusing to wed an interracial couple or a store preventing people of a certain race or gender from entering, a magistrate’s refusal to wed a same-sex couple is discrimination and able to be prosecuted as such, the memo says.

Gay and lesbian advocates agree. 

“While we respect a person’s religious freedom and views, same-sex couples seeking non-religious ceremonies in taxpayer-funded state buildings by state officials who receive salaries from our tax dollars should not be put in the position to be refused by anyone working for the state of North Carolina,” said Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality NC, in a press release.

Richard Walker, district court judge for the seven western counties, didn’t talk much about discrimination when explaining why all magistrates are required to perform the marriages. He spoke more of job duties and of the inappropriateness of a person’s personal view of the world interfering with their performance as a public servant. 

“People’s religious convictions are personal matters that I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to comment on,” Walker said. “If a magistrate is not able to perform the functions that are assigned, then they can’t be a magistrate. It’s just that simple.”

A quick call around to register of deeds and magistrates’ offices in the western counties brought up a bevy of similar opinions. 

“They all understand this is the state law now,” said Diana Kirkland, register of deeds for Swain County. “We just do our job and treat it like we would anything else.”

“It’s our duty to follow the law and not to judge,” agreed Erin Moorman, magistrate judge in Macon County.

“It’s just another marriage as far as we’re concerned,” said Joe Hamilton, register of deeds in Jackson County. 

But, Breedlove said, that’s not a job duty he can perform. 

“I cannot perform that job duty because of my religious beliefs,” he said. “Because of that conflict, my instinct is to go with the overriding factor of faith rather than the law of the land.”

Breedlove doesn’t see himself as judging. He’s helped gay and lesbian people in other aspects of his job, such as in handling small claims cases or assaults, and says he’s always been able to “hear that case in fairness.” 

What his decision is about, he said, is refusing to condone something that he believes is wrong. 

“I just want people to know that I don’t hate people and I don’t preach hatred,” he said. “I do preach against sin in all its forms — not just homosexuality but lying, stealing, cheating, rape, murder.”

He’s not the only member of the Western North Carolina legal system to have expressed a similar view or made a similar decision. Tom Holland, a magistrate judge in Graham County, resigned for similar reasons. And Shonia Parker Burch, the Republican candidate for register of deeds in Clay County, tried to withdraw her candidacy after the Oct. 10 ruling. 

“It would be against my Christian beliefs to sign and issue a marriage license for same sex individuals,” Parker Burch wrote in an email to The Smoky Mountain News. “This is not about me judging anyone. But, more about me worrying about how God would judge me. His Word is the Judge and Jury for all of us.  I will not compromise the Word of God and I don’t want anything or any job to come between me and God.”

Because ballots had already been printed when the ruling came down, Parker Burch was unable to withdraw from the election. But if elected, she plans to resign. 

Breedlove called the move to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples following the court ruling a “mad rush” and believes the change should have been implemented a little more slowly, with some allowance given magistrates with religious objections. 

“I believe that the state could have made preparations and could have set up a procedure to allow someone that religiously objected to step aside and let another magistrate perform the service,” Breedlove said.  

But Sgro doesn’t agree that’s something that’s needed.

Many electeds for equality were forced for years by law and duty to issue licenses to only some couples and not others, contrary to their consciences. Where was [Tami] Fitzgerald [of the NC Values Coalition]’s call for a state employee’s freedom to choose then?” Sgro asked.

Fitzgerald has issued a memo supporting registers of deeds’ freedom to refuse to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples. 

In some counties, that could have caused quite an inconvenience. In Buncombe County, for example, 125 same-sex couples applied for marriage licenses in the first week after the ruling, accounting for more than 50 percent of the 214 total marriage licenses applied for in that time period. 

But further west, the counts are much smaller. As of Oct. 20, only two licenses had been issued to same-sex couples in Jackson County, three in Swain County, eight in Macon and more than ten in Haywood. It’s hard to tell for sure, said Sherri Rogers, register of deeds in Haywood County, because the genders of the applicants aren’t always clear. The new marriage license forms have spaces for “Applicant 1” and “Applicant 2” rather than for “Bride” and “Groom,” and while there are checkboxes for gender beside each line, filling them out is optional. 

“Even if it’s male and female [applicants], they’re not always filling that out,” Rogers said. 

At 57, Breedlove is taking a hit financially by applying for early retirement, but he still has a church to pastor and plans to spend more time working on a Bible translation project he’s been at for years. The pastor of a Cherokee church and the husband of a Native American woman, he’s trying to create Bibles with English translations on one side of the page and translations in Native American languages on the other. He’s finished one in Choctaw and is working on one in Cherokee. 

“Basically we’re going where the Lord leads,” he said.

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