Arizona judges who perform weddings cannot turn away gay couples

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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -

Arizona judges who perform wedding ceremonies are being told that they cannot turn away gay couples who want to marry.

An opinion issued by a state judiciary ethics advisory committee said rejecting same-sex couples would violate a judicial-conduct rule against bias or prejudice based on sexual orientation.

The decision generated outrage from a leading conservative lawmaker and organization opposed to gay marriage, which became legal in Arizona last October.

Arizona's guidance marked the first time a state has issued a public, formal opinion on same-sex weddings to judges, said Cynthia Gray, director of a judicial ethics unit of the National Center for State Courts.

However, Gray noted that Washington state in 2013 admonished a judge who said he wouldn't perform same-sex marriages and that a North Carolina courts administrator in October told magistrates that they were duty-bound to marry same-sex couples.

More recently, Legislatures in states such as Alabama and North Carolina are considering "religious freedom" bills to allow judges to opt out of performing same-sex marriages.

Arizona so far is not among those states, but the head of a powerful lobby for social conservatives said it objects to the decision and is looking at options that include asking the committee to reconsider the opinion. The same group was behind a failed bill last year in the Arizona Legislature that allowed business owners to refuse to serve gays in the name of religion.

Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, said the opinion tramples on judges' religious rights and was approved without public comment.

The identities of judges and court officials requesting opinions are kept confidential, so it's not known who made the request. The committee originally issued the opinion in February. A slightly revised version followed on March 9.

Dorothy Little, a Gila County justice of the peace and president of the Arizona Justice of the Peace Association, said she had heard that some justices of the peace are concerned about having to perform same-sex marriages but she wasn't aware of any bubbling-over controversy.

The opinion noted that judges have no obligation to perform any marriages, but that if they do, they can't exclude gays. They can opt to perform marriages only for relatives and friends, but still cannot discriminate against gay couples. And defining "friends" too broadly, such as by including all of a church's members, "likely would undermine a judge's ability to assert a non-discriminatory intent and the protection of this opinion in defense of a misconduct charge," the opinion cautioned.

The advisory opinion also said a judge's religious or other personal beliefs don't make a difference, nor does it matter if the judge performs weddings at non-court locations.

State Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, said Monday he has serious issues with the opinion. He sponsored last year's religious-rights proposal, Senate Bill 1062.

"Without having studied it, by reaction is `you've got to be kidding,'" Yarbrough said. "I think we've got some First Amendment issues that would instantly come to my attention."

He said with only weeks left in the Legislature's annual session, it's unlikely a religious rights bill could be successfully shepherded through this year to address the issue.

George Reimer, the committee's top staff aide, said its opinions are not binding on judges but could weigh against them in a disciplinary case if a judge doesn't abide by it.

Officials of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union, which fought to make same-sex marriage legal, did not immediate respond to requests for comment.

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