LGBT rights and religious liberty are often viewed as being at odds with each other. The Supreme Court has heard a case about whether a baker may decline to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple. Many people seem to think that both arguments cannot coexist, but my experience shows that is not the case. I learned this firsthand as a civil magistrate for the State of North Carolina.
The duties of a magistrate vary widely, and people would often come to me with difficult situations, such as domestic violence victims seeking protective orders. I did my best to encourage people to see their self-worth, find hope and locate resources to help them. This was something I enjoyed greatly. But my favorite role as a magistrate was officiating civil wedding ceremonies. Presiding over two people committing their lives to each other filled me with so much joy that I routinely stepped in for other magistrates who didn’t like performing that task.
When same-sex marriage became legal in North Carolina after a 2014 court case, I didn’t want to stop anyone from getting lawfully married. I understood that same-sex marriage had become the law of the land. But I also knew that my religious beliefs prevented me from performing a same-sex wedding ceremony. Because handling weddings amounted to only about 5 percent of my work, I hoped there was a way to keep the job I loved without inconveniencing others.
My direct supervisor came up with a simple solution. She would change my schedule so that I was not on duty during the hours our office officiated weddings. My fellow magistrates were happy to cover for me, just as I had covered for them on many occasions. This would allow anyone to get married without inconvenience or embarrassment. This was not a big deal: In our courthouse in Union County, my colleagues and I often shifted around our schedules for things as simple as fishing trips or as important as night classes or drug rehab.
But the state government rejected this solution and made clear that I had to choose between my faith and my job. I was told that if I did not perform same-sex weddings, I would be subject to civil penalties and criminal prosecution. Facing this choice, I was forced to resign in 2014. I lost the job that I loved, one I’d held for five years, and my retirement that would have vested in just two months.
That didn’t have to be the case. Our civil rights laws — and many Supreme Court cases — encourage employers to do lots of things in the workplace to ensure that people of all backgrounds are valued, respected employees. Individuals with disabilities are given special equipment. Muslim workers can obtain scheduling accommodations for prayer breaks or dress code deviations for headscarves. Government workers have been excused from handing out fliers for meat products because they were vegan. Prison guards who disagree with the death penalty are allowed to avoid being involved in executions. The Supreme Court recently ruled that shipping centers cannot require pregnant women to work shifts requiring heavy lifting.
That’s why a federal judge said, in a ruling that became final last month, that the state broke the law when it targeted me and refused to let me shift my schedule like other magistrates — who might move their workday to avoid rush hour or ensure that they can pick up their kids from day care. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission judge said that I never should have lost my job and that the state could provide same-sex marriages while still protecting the religious beliefs of its employees. North Carolina then admitted it had treated me unfairly, and it entered a substantial settlement, giving me back my pay and retirement benefits that were unjustly taken away. Since this case began, the state also passed a law saying that if too many magistrates wanted to abstain from officiating same-sex marriage, supervisors could import magistrates from other counties to administer them.
As one of the most diverse countries in the world, it’s no surprise that we disagree on sex, religion and many other things. The great thing is, our civil rights laws point us to a society where we can live, work and break bread together despite our differences. My case shows that we can find reasonable solutions that protect the freedom and dignity of everyone.