RALEIGH, N.C. (Reuters) - North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory said on Thursday he would veto legislation allowing government officials to refuse to perform marriages by citing religious objections.
The measure, passed by the state's Republican-led House of Representatives earlier in the day, would protect those who oppose same-sex weddings from losing their jobs.
The Republican governor said no public officials who swore to defend the Constitution and perform their duties of office should be exempt from upholding their oath.
"I recognize that for many North Carolinians, including myself, opinions on same-sex marriage come from sincerely held religious beliefs that marriage is between a man and a woman," he said. "However, we are a nation and a state of laws."
The Republican-controlled state Senate passed the measure in February. It was not immediately clear if there were enough legislative votes to override McCrory's veto.
The bill allows magistrates and other officials to refuse to perform marriages or issue marriage certificates by citing a “sincerely held religious objection.” Once they have asked to be recused in writing, magistrates would be barred from performing any marriage, gay or heterosexual, for six months.
During debate over several days, supporters of the measure said it would offer needed protection for magistrates who have said they would not perform gay marriages since the practice became legal in North Carolina last year.
“Really the question is, should you be fired from a job or subject to disciplinary action because you choose to live your life by sincerely held religious beliefs?” Republican Representative Dean Arp said.
The legislation requires that all eligible couples have access to marriage services. But critics said gay couples would likely face delays if officials objected to marrying them, particularly in less populated areas where few magistrates are available.
Democratic Representative Grier Martin compared the bill to the system that once segregated students by race under the argument that black and white schools were “separate but equal.”
“This sets up a separate system of marriage,” Martin said. “We’ve tried separate but equal before in this state. It did not work then, and it does not work now.”
Similar bills were filed in several states this year, although none have become law yet, the American Civil Liberties Union said.
Gay marriage is legal in 37 states and Washington, D.C. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide by the end of June whether same-sex marriage should be legal nationwide.
Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney