RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The state Senate voted Monday night to cancel Gov. Pat McCrory's veto of a bill that would allow some North Carolina court officials to refuse to perform gay marriage activities because of religious objections.
The 32-16 vote was above the three-fifths threshold necessary to override a veto. The bill still must clear the House again for the veto to be blocked and the law enacted. That vote was scheduled for Wednesday in the House, where the outcome is less certain because 10 lawmakers were absent last week when the bill first passed.
McCrory, a Republican who vetoed the bill within hours of final legislative passage, saying no public official voluntarily taking an oath to support and defend the Constitution should be exempt from upholding duties. The bill followed within a few months of federal judges striking down North Carolina's 2012 constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage.
But GOP colleagues in the legislature backing the idea said the government employees have the right to receive reasonable accommodations based on their deeply held beliefs in the name of constitutionally-held religious freedoms.
"Just because someone takes a job with the government does not mean they give up their First Amendment rights," Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said during the brief override debate.
The bill says the 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.
Democrats, who were largely opposed to the bill, reiterated Monday night the measure would breed and could stoke bias. Register of deeds office issues marriage licenses. Gay couples could be forced to wait longer to get married if a magistrate decides upon seeing them that he or she can't solemnize the union, they argued.
The ability for an 11th-hour religious exemption "is putting local officials at risk to be challenged for discrimination," said Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash. "We are setting them (up) to play out those prejudices within this loophole."
But bill supporters have dismissed that argument, saying everyone will be treated the same in all 100 counties.
"If a same-sex couple wants to get married in North Carolina they will have the opportunity to get married in North Carolina," Berger said. One Democrat voted to override the veto. Three Republicans voted no.
Berger introduced the bill when several magistrates resigned shortly after same-sex marriages were authorized last October. The state's top court administrator said at the time magistrates who declined to officiate for same-sex couples could be punished, terminated or face potential criminal charges.
Utah is the only state that's approved a similar exemption, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Utah's governor signed that bill.
The fight over the bill's outcome continued Monday among special interest advocates, with Equality North Carolina encouraging followers on Twitter to urge lawmakers to keep McCrory's veto in place.
"We look to the North Carolina House to do the right thing and stand by his decision," Equality NC Executive Director Chris Sgro said in a release. Concerned Women for America, which supports the bill, had strong words for the governor Monday, saying court officials should be allowed to express their beliefs without fear of discrimination or persecution.
McCrory "Betrays His Constituents — Forces North Carolinians to Violate their Consciences," the headline in the group's release said.
McCrory vetoed another bill late last week that would let an employer sue and get monetary damages from someone who gains access to non-public areas of a company without authority and commits theft or sets up a camera or audio recorder. House leaders set up the initial override vote for this bill in their chamber for Wednesday.