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File Photo - State representative Bert Jones speaks as state senator Phil Berger Sr., left, and John Kallam Jr. stand behind ,during a rally at the Rockingham County Courthouse in support of magistrate John Kallam Jr. who resigned because he felt marrying same-sex couples violated his religious beliefs, on Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014, in Wentworth, N.C. Sheriff Sam Page estimated the crowd at between 300-400 supporters.

It’s appalling that the first order of business for our state legislature would be to reinstate Jim Crow. Or should we call it James Crow? Jane Crow? Jim Crow 2.0?

Discrimination by any name smells just as sour.

But discrimination is precisely what the bill introduced Wednesday by state Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) allows. Currently titled the Magistrates Recusal of Civil Ceremonies, the bill falls under the general heading of “religious freedom” laws sweeping the country after the legalization of same-sex marriage in many states.

In short, “religious freedom” laws would allow private businesses or public officials to refuse service to gay and lesbian customers based on religious beliefs.

Berger’s bill would allow magistrates and registers of deed to recuse themselves from performing all lawful marriages based upon any sincerely held religious objection. The bill provides that every office would have to have an official available to perform marriages but for only 10 hours per week, spread across at least three business days.

Though this bill is narrower in scope than “religious freedom” laws that have been attempted in other states, it still legislates discrimination and limits the rights of groups that could be targeted by a religious objection.

“While the bill does not expressly mention the LGBT community and its same-sex couples, we’ve seen this cynical tactic play out in many parts of the country in many different ways,” said Chis Sgro, executive director of Equality NC, which lobbies for equal rights and justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) North Carolinians.

Because this bill doesn’t specify, however, magistrates presumably would be free to recuse themselves from performing other marriages that violated their religious beliefs. Religion is a very malleable thing, having been used to object to all kinds of practices. But let’s take an obvious case.

A magistrate opposed to interracial marriage simply could cite the passage used by the Virginia circuit court judge in 1959, when he convicted Richard and Mildred Loving of the crime of interracial marriage.

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

Boom! Religious objection.

Of course, the Supreme Court overturned that conviction and in 1967 struck down the laws banning interracial marriage, but if a religious exemption is available for same-sex marriage, there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t be available for interracial marriage as well.

My husband and I still could marry legally, of course, but only on certain hours of certain days by a magistrate who doesn’t find our union objectionable.

Doesn’t that sound nice?

Allowing public officials to opt out of laws with which they don’t agree is a dangerous precedent that could spill into all kinds of applications in both the public and private sectors.

Should the state offer job protections to government employees who refuse to officiate same-sex marriages for religious reasons?

Sen. Phil Berger has filed a bill that would protect the jobs of magistrates and other employees who object. http://bit.ly/1CPcfn6

You voted:

House Republican Leader Paul Stam already is promising to file a bill with much broader “protections” that would allow service providers, government officials and business owners to refuse service on religious grounds.

A similar bill, which would have allowed businesses to refuse service to anyone based on religious beliefs, passed last year in Arizona but ultimately was vetoed by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer after an outcry by groups, residents and corporations, including Apple and American Airlines.

Discrimination isn’t just morally wrong. It’s also bad for business. State Rep. Grier Martin (D-Wake) noted Wednesday that the progressive, high-tech and global companies attracted to the Triangle have many openly gay employees.

“If they (companies) see that a state is trying to discriminate against their employees, they are less likely to continue to bring jobs here,” Martin said. “We have tried separate but equal. It did not work then, and it does not work now.”

The state, at the behest of Berger, already is wasting taxpayers’ dollars fighting in the courts to reinstate Amendment One, with little to no chance of success. Now he’s proposing another unconstitutional law that also very likely would be overturned after a court battle at taxpayers’ expense.

The state spent at least $1.2 million in taxpayers’ money last year on private attorneys to fight battles that normally would reside with the attorney general’s office. Attorney General Roy Cooper said last year he no longer would oppose challenges to the state’s gay marriage ban.

Meanwhile, more than 255,000 North Carolinians need a job. Schools are desperately underfunded. Hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians have no health care because the state has refused to expand Medicaid. The state is facing a $200 million budget shortfall that could increase.

And still Berger keeps fiddling away while the flames grow higher.

Pandering to voters with ultimately futile but highly popular proposals is nothing new, but this shameful gesture also inflames intolerance and empowers prejudice.

Contact Susan Ladd at (336) 373-7006, and follow @SusanLaddNR on Twitter.

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