RALEIGH, North Carolina — North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory vetoed Thursday a religious exemption bill that would allow some court officials to avoid gay marriage duties.
His decision, announced hours after lawmakers gave final approval to the measure, puts him at odds with social conservatives in his Republican Party and GOP legislative leaders spearheading the legislation.
Now the General Assembly must decide whether to override that veto and enact the bill, which gives magistrates and some register of deeds workers the ability to avoid duties for all marriages if they have a "sincerely held religious objection."
McCrory said in a written statement that "for many North Carolinians, including myself, opinions on same-sex marriage come from sincerely held religious beliefs that marriage is between a man and a woman." But, he added, "we are a nation and a state of laws."
"No public official who voluntarily swears to support and defend the Constitution and to discharge all duties of their office should be exempt from upholding that oath," McCrory said.
McCrory vetoed the bill a half-hour after his public statement, spokesman Josh Ellis said. The bill now returns to the legislature. To enact the law over McCrory's objections, at least three-fifths of the lawmakers voting in each chamber must support an override.
The House and Senate already passed the bill by margins above the threshold, although the House 67-43 vote Thursday was barely above it. Ten House members had excused absences and didn't vote.
Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, who introduced the bill, and House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, didn't address a possible override in a joint statement. They said they "respect but disagree with the governor's decision."
Gay rights group Equality North Carolina praised the veto and urged lawmakers to keep the veto in place.
"Both actions will send a strong message that no public official is exempt from the constitution they themselves have sworn to uphold and that all North Carolinians deserve equal access to state services under the law," group executive director Chris Sgro said.
The group's allies included Democrats, who said during impassioned House debate this week the exemption amounted to discrimination that reminded them of racial bias incorporated into laws from the Jim Crow era.
Bill supporters argue government employees should be allowed religious accommodation if marrying same-sex couples runs counter to their beliefs. The bill "strikes an appropriate balance," Moore and Berger said.
The Christian conservative North Carolina Values Coalition said the bill protects religious freedom. "It is unacceptable for any governor who calls himself 'conservative' to veto" such legislation, coalition spokeswoman Jessica Wood said.
The measure was filed when several magistrates resigned shortly after federal judges last October struck down North Carolina's 2012 constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage. The state's top court administrator said at the time magistrates who declined to officiate for same-sex couples could be punished, terminated or face potential criminal charges.
Utah is the only state that's approved a similar exemption, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Utah's governor signed that bill.
The North Carolina bill says the court officials who disclose their objection must stop performing marriage duties for both gay and heterosexual couples for at least six months. The chief District Court judge or the county register of deeds — both elected officials — would fill in on marriages if needed.
The veto is McCrory's fourth since taking office in early 2013. The legislature overrode two of the first three.