Gayle Myrick, a 68-year-old grandmother of three, loved her job as a magistrate in North Carolina. For almost five years, she set bonds, issued warrants, and granted protective orders to domestic violence victims, all while offering a message of hope to individuals in a tough spot.
“You can start over every day,” Gayle would tell the Americans who came before her. “You don’t have to be in this situation forever. There’s plenty of people that want to help you.”
She especially loved presiding over marriage 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,” she wrote in a column published in The Washington Post.
But all of that changed in October, 2014, when same-sex marriage was made legal in North Carolina. As a Christian, Gayle could not in good conscience perform same-sex marriages, since Christianity reserves sex exclusively to a married man and woman. Yet she also didn’t want to prevent anyone from getting married, nor to feel he or she was treated differently.
After praying and thinking, she and her supervisor came up with a solution: they would alter Gayle’s schedule so she wouldn’t perform any marriages. The judge that supervises her office rejected this plan, and Gayle was forced to resign — just two months shy of being eligible for retirement.
“I lost it all,” she said.
‘You Stand Up For Your Convictions At Any Cost’
Throughout our phone conversations totaling 90 minutes, it’s clear Gayle’s identity is deeply rooted in her family and faith. She says she inherited her strong convictions and a willingness to stand up for her beliefs from her father, an extremely hard worker and honest man. He worked as a welder and farmed on the side, working from three o’clock in the morning until six or seven o’clock at night each day.
“He was going to do what was right and the consequences did not matter to him,” she said of her father, who passed away 2005. “He showed them we can agree to disagree . . . without back-biting. . . That’s the way he is remembered to this day. He is just a person who stood for what he believed.”
Her mother was a stay-at-home mom, which entailed a lot more back then than it does now, Gayle tells me. She cooked, cleaned, sewed her family’s clothes, gardened, and taught Gayle about her faith.
“You stand up for your convictions at any cost, ” she said. “And you’re kind to everyone. . . We are all made in God’s eyes. He loves us all, he knows we have different views and opinions. We need to offer that same grace to others.”
While we’re on the phone, she asks me to hang on a second while she coordinates travel plans with her granddaughter. They are about to depart on a trip to New York her daughter’s 35th birthday. It’s become a family tradition to celebrate one’s 35th birthday in New York, after she did that with her other daughter a few years back, she explains.
When Gayle was 10 years old, she became a Christian and has kept that faith ever since. Growing up, she was active in her church’s youth group and choir. Today, she attends a Baptist church, where she has attended since 2011, but she doesn’t want everyone to think she has a perfect church attendance record. She tells me when she was working, she would sometimes skip church if she worked a late shift the night before. If she got off from work at 7 a.m. on a Sunday, she would go home to catch some sleep.
“I’ve always relied on my faith to get me through any situation,” she said. “I’m a born-again Christian, and my beliefs are based on the scriptures. And the Bible teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman.”
When same-sex marriage became legal, magistrates throughout the state received a memo from the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, instructing them to perform same-sex ceremonies or face “potential criminal charges.” The memo was disseminated when Gayle was off from work for a few days, which bought her some time to think and pray. When she returned to work, she did not want to offend anyone or cause a commotion, she said. Above all, Gayle said she was intent on treating everyone like God wanted her to.
“I had no animosity in my heart,” she said. “I had no opinion on how they want to live their lifestyle. That’s their right to do so. I wanted to make sure my attitude and my countenance was one of love and respect.”
So her immediate supervisor suggested they shift Gayle’s schedule around for a few hours so she would not be on duty while a marriage ceremony was to be performed. Because marriages were by appointment only, it would have been easy to create a work schedule so no one would be prevented from a marriage ceremony while accommodating for Gayle’s religious convictions.
“No rejection, no embarrassing situations,” she said.
When she pitched the idea to her coworkers, they were happy to help.
“We all did work really well together, [since] we all had different schedules in our daily lives,” Gayle Smith, a fellow magistrate, said in a video produced by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “But when it came to our work schedules, we all helped each other. Looked out for one another for family emergencies, vacations, that type of thing. ”
Gayle Was Told to Perform Same-Sex Weddings, Or Else
When she presented the idea several days later to the judge overseeing her office, Gayle was armed with her pre-written resignation letter, just in case.
“I’ve never been fired from a job, and I certainly didn’t want to be criminally prosecuted,” she said in reference to the threatening memo. “My daddy wouldn’t like that a bit.”
She was told no accommodations for religious beliefs would be accepted. Fearing the worst, Gayle offered her resignation letter, which was accepted after the compromise was rejected. A friend suggested that she file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that she had involuntarily resigned from her job after being discriminated against due to her religious beliefs. She followed this advice, not expecting to hear anything back.
“But I trusted God,” she said. “I just trusted him everyday. Whatever happens, it’s just meant to be.”
Nearly a year later, Gayle received a letter in the mail from the federal agency, stating that they were pursuing the case on her behalf. She was shocked.
“This is over my pay scale,” she says she thought at the time.
On the advice of a friend, Gayle contacted an attorney, Ellis Boyle, who, in partnership with the public interest law firm Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, pursued the case. The staff at The Becket Fund had the same mindset about religious liberty and fairness Gayle did. They support ensuring that civil rights equally protect all people of all views.
Her Case Sends A Message to Employers Everywhere
A federal judge, Michael Devine, ruled in Gayle’s favor. He found that the state of North Carolina broke the law when it rejected reasonable solutions to accommodate Gayle’s religious beliefs. He also found that Gayle’s subsequent resignation was not voluntary, as she was told she would face disciplinary action, civil penalties, or even criminal prosecution unless she agreed to perform same-sex marriages. She was awarded more than $300,000 from the state in lost pay, attorney’s fees, and her retirement benefits in an agreement finalized late last month.
Gayle sees her court victory as a “win-win situation” for religious liberty and for gay couples. She hopes her case will send a message to employers that they must make reasonable accommodations for their employees’ religious beliefs, and that it encourages others to stand up for their civil rights in a way that honors God.
“Deeply held faith and deeply held sexual orientation are important to each of us,” she said. “We do not have to be at odds with each other.”
Gayle’s story sends a message to employers across the country, Becket attorney Stephanie Barclay said. They must reasonably accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs. If they don’t, that violates the law.
“Regardless of whether we agree with Gayle’s beliefs, we should all be glad that the laws of our country require employers to create an accommodating workplace, and to do so in an evenhanded way that doesn’t allow targeting of some disfavored groups,” wrote Barclay. “Such laws protect the diversity and dignity of everyone.”