At a House Judiciary committee public hearing Wednesday, representatives from the state’s Registers of Deeds offices told lawmakers that Senate Bill 2 will cause a host of staffing and administrative problems.
Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen said he is concerned that the bill, which allows magistrates with “sincerely held religious beliefs”
to recuse themselves from performing civil marriages, will interfere with his daily operations.
Thigpen oversees 25 full-time staffers (down from 33 since the Recession) and says his office issued 3600 marriage licenses in the past year— 265 of those to same-sex couples—on top of providing thousands of copies of marriage and birth certificates and making thousands of real estate transactions.
“If this bill were passed as currently written, will I have two members of my staff that would ask for religious recusal, would I have five, would I have seven..?” Thigpen asked the committee. “When you talk about the pragmatics of this bill, it puts me at a significant disadvantage in terms of staffing.”
He also took issue with the lack of definition of a “sincerely held religious objection” in the bill.
“The bill doesn’t give local elected officials any flexibility to determine with their county attorneys whether there are significant practical burdens that may happen, and/or whether the religious objection is clear,” Thigpen said.
Thigpen said he would have to approach his county commissioners to ask for additional staff in the cases of recusals. “If they approved it, can I then ask (the applicant, in an interview) whether or not they would religiously recuse themselves..?” Thigpen asked. “I’ll be trying to fix a problem that may actually continually be a problem.”
Caldwell County Register of Deeds and chair of the North Carolina Register of Deeds Association, which does not take an official position on S2, said the association has “some very serious concerns about the implementation of the bill, especially for the smaller counties.”
A survey of the Register of Deeds offices in North Carolina’s 100 counties found that 42 counties have three or fewer employees; of those, 23 counties have only two employees and eight counties only have one employee in the office besides the elected Register of Deeds.
“Our concern with the passage of this bill is, how would that work for the smaller counties,” Rash said. “If there are only one or two employees in an office, the chances are much greater that they might opt out.” Rash said that would place substantial burden on the Register of Deeds who would have to be at the office “52 weeks a year, Monday through Friday, all day.”