Two Victories for Religious Freedom: North Carolina and Michigan Pass Laws to Protect Religious Liberty for Magistrates and Adoption Agencies

June 25, 2015

New laws take important steps toward protecting religious freedom for those with traditional, sincerely-held religious beliefs on marriage


This month, two states—North Carolina and Michigan—approved bills that protect the religious liberty of those who hold to the traditional, time-honored view that marriage is between one man and one woman, protecting some groups whose religious liberty is particularly at risk from a Supreme Court ruling imposing nationwide same-sex marriage.

North Carolina’s law, for which First Liberty Institute gave advice on the wording, protects the religious freedom of the state’s magistrates, assistant registers of deeds, and deputy registers of deeds. Michigan’s law defends the constitutional rights of adoption and foster care agencies in that state.

First Liberty Institute General Counsel Jeff Mateer applauded the actions by North Carolina and Michigan. “We’re encouraged to see states begin to specify religious liberty protections, so that citizens may continue to live and act upon their faith in all spheres of their lives whether it be in their place of worship, at work or in the public arena.”

The passage of North Carolina’s and Michigan’s new laws comes just before the Supreme Court is expected to rule on Obergefell v. Hodges, a group of consolidated cases challenging the constitutionality of state laws defining marriage as between one man and one woman and which could have wide ramifications for religious liberty.


North Carolina’s law asserts that magistrates, assistant registers of deeds, and deputy registers of deeds may not be removed from their positions for declining to officiate or issue marriage licenses if doing so would require them to violate their religious beliefs. The law states, in part:

“‘(a) Every magistrate has the right to recuse from performing all lawful marriages under this Chapter based upon any sincerely held religious objection. . . .’”

“‘(b) Every assistant register of deeds and deputy register of deeds has the right to recuse from issuing all lawful marriage licenses under this Chapter based upon any sincerely held religious objection. . . .’”

The law allows magistrates, assistant registers of deeds, and deputy registers of deeds to opt out of officiating marriages or issuing marriage licenses for “‘at least six months’” and protects those individuals from being “subjected to a disciplinary action, due to a good-faith recusal under this section.” The law also includes provisions to ensure that all couples who are legally allowed to marry will be able to obtain marriage licenses and that officials will be available to officiate legal marriages.


Michigan’s new law (passed in a package of three bills: HB 4188, HB 4189, and HB 4190) protects the rights of faith-based adoption and foster care agencies in the state to operate according to their religious beliefs.

The law (HB 4188) affirms that private adoption and foster care agencies have the constitutional right of religious freedom and recognizes that “[c]hildren and families benefit greatly” from the services of both faith-based and non-faith-based agencies. Later, it states:

“(2) To the fullest extent permitted by state and federal law, a child placing agency shall not be required to provide any services if those services conflict with, or provide any services under circumstances that conflict with, the child placing agency’s sincerely held religious beliefs contained in a written policy, statement of faith, or other document adhered to by the child placing agency.”

It also guarantees that adoption and foster care agencies will not face “adverse action” from the government for declining to provide services that violate their religious beliefs.


Michigan and North Carolina aren’t the only states acting to preserve religious liberty. Arkansas recently passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)—despite the recent media and corporate backlash against RFRAs.

In addition, this month, Texas approved the Pastor Protection Act, a law that, among other things, affirms the right of pastors to decline to perform marriages that violate their sincerely-held religious beliefs. First Liberty Institute Senior Counsel and Director of Research and Education Justin Butterfield testified on behalf of the legislation before the Texas House State Affairs Committee in April.  First Liberty Institute Counsel Cleve Doty testified on behalf of the bill in front of a Texas Senate committee.

Oklahoma is also considering a bill to protect the rights of pastors, and that bill passed the Oklahoma State House on a vote of 88–7. Many other states already have protections like those in the Pastor Protection Act in place—including Washington, D.C.; Connecticut; Delaware; Rhode Island; Vermont; and Washington.

First Liberty Institute advised more than 13 states and the federal government on the wording of laws to protect religious liberty, and remains committed to defending the rights of Americans to freely express their religious beliefs and live out their faith in the public arena, as well as in the military, the school, and the church.

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About First Liberty Institute
First Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit

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