Legislative leaders say controversial religious freedom bills not moving
Posted April 23, 2015
Raleigh, N.C. — State House and Senate leaders said Thursday that they are unlikely to push forward this summer with North Carolina's own version of a religious freedom bill that has been the subject of controversy in other states where it has passed.
Members of both the House and the Senate have filed versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which makes it illegal for the state to "burden" a person's ability to follow his or her religious beliefs. The definition of "person" includes religious institutions, businesses and associations. Opponents of the bill suggest it could lead to government workers and those working for private businesses to refuse to provide services for any number of reasons based on race, gender or other characteristics.
However, the measure is broadly viewed as a way to legalize discrimination against gay and lesbian couples and has drawn criticism from the business community, including the leaders of big companies such as IBM and Red Hat.
"We'll see what happens as we move forward with this session," Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said, adding that his chamber had no plans to take up the measure in the next week.
That timing is key because lawmakers are facing the key April 30 "crossover" deadline by which bills that don't raise or spend money typically have to pass one chamber or the other in order to remain eligible for consideration during the legislative session.
Berger said senators were waiting to see what the state House might do.
A few hours later, House Speaker Tim Moore gathered reporters in his office to say that his chamber has no plans to take up the bill before lawmakers leave town this summer.
"We won't hear the bill before crossover, and I would expect that the bill, at least in its current form, would probably not be heard during this long session," Moore said.
He later said, "For this session, the bill's not going to move," leaving open the possibility it could come up when lawmakers meet in 2016.
After Moore gave his remarks, Berger sent a news release emphasizing Senate Republicans' commitment to religious freedom.
“Senate Republicans remain committed to ensuring freedom of religion – and to preventing discrimination against North Carolinians based on their sincerely held religious beliefs," Berger said. He added, "We support the strong protections laid out in the U.S. Constitution and in our state constitution," and said that Senate Republicans were "carefully assessing" whether the state constitutions provided adequate protection for religious liberty.
While those answers give both men some wiggle room to resurrect the bill at an opportune moment, momentum against the measure has been building. Members of both chambers, as well as Gov. Pat McCrory and other executive branch officials, are eyeing the 2016 elections and would like to campaign on a message of economic accomplishments rather than be saddled with divisive social issues.
Already, Democratic opponents are beginning to level salvos at McCrory, who has said he does not see the need for the RFRA legislation but has not vowed to veto it.
"Businesses don't want that social agenda," Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, said at a news conference Thursday morning. "But legislative Republicans have shown little interest in the business community. They're really all about social issues, all the time."
Moore pointed to the controversy over the Indiana RFRA law that prompted companies to announce they would leave the state as the type of issue he would like to avoid.
"We want to do everything we can when it comes to economic development in this state to make sure we are standing head and shoulders above the other states around us," Moore said. "There is a concern we don't want to have any side issue that hurts us on that."
LGTB advocates said they were pleased by the news.
"This decision is a testament to the actions of thousands of North Carolinian, from business leaders to faith communities to a majority of North Carolina voters ... who pushed back on the notion that religion should ever be used to discriminate against North Carolinians," said Equality NC Executive Director Chris Sgro, adding that the group was still concerned about the magistrates bill.
And it's not like the General Assembly has shied away from all social issues.
The state House, for example, Thursday passed a measure Thursday to extend the waiting period to obtain an abortion. Earlier this year, the state Senate passed a bill that would allow magistrates to recuse themselves from performing marriages if they have a sincere religious objection. That measure, which was also seen as anti-LGBT, is sitting in the House.
Asked about that bill, Moore said it was likely his chamber would take it up in May or June, after the rush of the crossover period had passed.
"I think the overwhelming majority of folks support that bill, and it's my intention we take it up," he said.
Berger left the door open to other bills that address social issues coming up.
"I'm hearing a lot of concern from folks on the tolerance issue, particularly tolerance for people of faith and beliefs that folks have firm adherence to," he said. "RFRA is one response to that, but I don't know that's the only way for us to deal with some of those concerns."