Decorative Scales of Justice in the CourtroomWritten by Don Byrd

The controversy over the right to refuse service on religious grounds may soon intensify. We have seen cases involving pharmacists who object to dispensing emergency contraceptives, and wedding service providers who refuse to photograph, arrange flowers, or decorate cakes for same-sex weddings. Now, a magistrate in North Carolina has refused to perform a civil marriage ceremony for a same-sex couple, soon after a judge struck down the state’s gay marriage ban.

The Christian Science Monitor report places this act in context:

The magistrate’s refusal to perform the marriage is part of a small, but growing trend of religiously motivated civil disobedience. Religious conservatives, such as Pat Buchanan, and right-leaning sites, such as American Thinker, have begun espousing “massive civil disobedience”  to fight same-sex marriage.

American Thinker calls it a “refusal…to help in the celebration of something that is unconscionable to the Christian proprietors, which would require them to at least implicitly endorse that which they believe to be morally wrong.”

Importantly, this civil marriage issue should not be confused with clergy, who would never be required to perform same-sex ceremonies (or really any marriage). Here, the objector is acting on behalf of the state to provide lawful civil marriages. Should the state accommodate that person’s religious objection to performing same-sex marriages if possible? What if there is only one magistrate available at the time the couple arrives to be married?

This are of dispute – the right of conscience to refuse service – promises to be heavily litigated. So far, the Supreme Court has declined to address the issue directly. How long can that last?