NC 'religious freedom' legislation courts Indiana-type controversy
Posted March 30, 2015
Updated March 31, 2015
Raleigh, N.C. — Indiana's new religious expression law has stirred protests across the country and led to economic boycotts in recent days, and similar outrage could soon be on North Carolina's doorstep.
Companion bills in the North Carolina House and Senate, dubbed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, have many of the same provisions as the law enacted last week in Indiana.
Both states' measures prohibit state laws that "burden" a person's ability to follow his or her religious beliefs. The definition of "person" includes religious institutions, businesses and associations.
Indiana legislative leaders say their law is based on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which has been upheld by courts, and insist it has been mischaracterized as something that will lead to discrimination against gays and lesbians. Lawmakers are now trying to pass a technical fix to the act to clarify its language.
Rep. Gary Pendleton, R-Wake, said North Carolina's legislation is designed to prevent government bodies from discriminating against people based on religion.
"I'm a very strong Christian, but I respect all religions," said Pendleton, a sponsor of the House bill, which is expected to get its first committee hearing on Wednesday.
House Speaker Tim Moore said the Republican caucus isn't in agreement on Pendleton's bill, so it's unclear when, or if, it will pass.
"It's going to sit there (in committee) a while," said Moore, R-Cleveland.
Pendleton dismissed concerns that, if enacted, the law would encourage prejudice. "I can't see how it could be used (that way)," he said.
Sarah Preston, policy director for the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said it's very plain to see such applications.
"It could result essentially in people saying, 'Because of my religion, I don't have to rent to or sell to particular groups of people,'" Preston said. "I think basically what these bills are is for people to ignore the law under the guise of religious freedom."
Gov. Pat McCrory said in a radio interview Monday that he doesn't see the need for such laws and is opposed to another proposal working its way through the General Assembly that would allow county magistrates and register of deeds employees to opt out of their official duties to avoid having to provide marriage licenses or perform weddings for same-sex couples.
"It's huge that Gov. McCrory came out and said that he thinks this is unnecessary and uncalled for," said Chris Sgro, executive director of gay rights advocacy group Equality NC.
North Carolina also has an economic interest not to follow Indiana's lead, some critics say.
"It doesn’t mean anything good when it comes to jobs and the economy in North Carolina,” said Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake.
Martin cited business-review website Angie's List calling off an expansion in Indianapolis and comments by Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook calling religious freedom laws dangerous. The NCAA, which is set to hold its men's basketball championship in Indianapolis next weekend, also has raised the idea of not holding future tournaments in the state.
"Companies don't want to relocate to a state that embraces discrimination," said Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake. "North Carolina just doesn't need to go there."