McDowell County is not like Rowan County

Timothy Kincaid

September 11th, 2015

McDowelFollowing 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. (

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.


September 11th, 2015

Thanks for the clarification.

Paul Douglas

September 11th, 2015

Hard to argue with that line of reasoning!


September 12th, 2015

Yes, this is one of those cases that would be harder to argue. Seeing as how easy it is to become a registered minister to perform a wedding ceremony I am more ok with this. I still have some issues with this because it can create issues for people who, for example, just want to get married at the court house as soon as possible.

Personally though, I am still of the opinion that if your religious beliefs don’t allow you to perform the entirety of your job you should look for a new job.

Priya Lynn

September 12th, 2015

“Yes, this is one of those cases that would be harder to argue. Seeing as how easy it is to become a registered minister to perform a wedding ceremony I am more ok with this.”.

Suppose you’re atheists and you don’t want a minister to perform your wedding?

Ben in oakland

September 12th, 2015

Priya, the word “minister” is so broad in this context that I think the objection is legally trivial. Paul and I are atheists, but we had no problem with a minister friend performing our marriage, under the condition that he left the Christian God out of the service. He has no problem with that.

I think Timothy’s distinction is a good one in this case. I would not forget these magistrates, and I would have no problem voting against them if that were an option for me. What I would do, in the case of all martyrbaters, is publicize, publicize, publicize.

I’ve said this before. I think using non-discrimination law, in the broadest sense, should be reserved for the most egregious cases of discrimination. If there are other options, we do ourselves no favors, in any sense, by using an a bomb against a fly.

Priya Lynn

September 12th, 2015

I strongly disagree Ben. My husband and I are atheists and no way would a minister have been acceptable for our marriage. Many atheists feel the same way – the word “minister” isn’t broad enough to make the use of one acceptable.

Priya Lynn

September 12th, 2015

I suspect the vast majority of atheists feel the same way.

Priya Lynn

September 12th, 2015

“Priya, the word “minister” is so broad in this context that I think the objection is legally trivial.”.

Yes, I agree the distinction is legally trivial. On a personal basis that is a whoooolllle different story.

Priya Lynn

September 12th, 2015

I misread the Ben’s sentence in the previous comment. The distinction is legally trivial, the objection is most certainly not.


September 12th, 2015

Priya, I’m an atheist as well and that is why I have a little problem with this. As I said previously, this makes me think of that proposed law in MI where only religious officials could sign marriage certificates. I would like these people to find new jobs if they can’t perform them completely because of religious beliefs. However, I also pointed out that becoming someone that can officiate a wedding takes about 5 minutes online.

Ben in oakland

September 12th, 2015

And that’s partly what I meant by saying it was legally trivial Byron.

Priya Lynn

September 12th, 2015

“I also pointed out that becoming someone that can officiate a wedding takes about 5 minutes online.”.

Doesn’t matter how long it takes, if you have to be a minister to do a wedding its unacceptable. The government needs to provice a secular alternative. To me and I’m sure many if not most atheists it would be completely unacceptable to have any religious aspect to it, five minutes or not.

Mark F.

September 14th, 2015

I’d have no problem with a Unitarian minister, as an atheist. Or any minister who leaves “God” out of the ceremony.

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