Raleigh, N.C. — God may not get a vote at the General Assembly, but his named was dropped a lot last week.
"I just cannot remain silent as the institution of marriage and the God who ordained marriage are subjected to what I believe is a mockery," Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham, said during debate on a bill that would let magistrates opt out of performing marriages.
The measure is widely viewed as a way of allowing magistrates and county employees with certain religious beliefs to avoid performing same-sex weddings, and it was vetoed by Gov. Pat McCrory on Thursday, hours after the House passed it.
"It's against the law to murder in North Carolina because it's against God's law," declared Henri McClees, a lobbyist for the North Carolina Sporting Dog Association, arguing a bill that would, if passed, allow hunting with rifles and shotguns on Sundays. "The Bible is the basis for American law. It's against the law to steal in our statutes because its against God's law. It's wrong. ... He said, 'Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.'"
While the Sunday hunting law cleared the state Senate, lawmakers did compromise with churchgoers in allowing for firearms to be used only after noon, the same point in time when grocery stores can start selling beer and wine on Sundays – both nods to allowing time for church attendance.
While God did not explicitly come up during the Senate debate on a bill that would further restrict abortions in the state, there were strong moral overtones to the debate.
"Abortion, in my opinion, is not health care," said Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth, during the debate. "There is also a victim. It's the only health care I know of (which is) considered a success when there's a death. This is not health care."
Republican leaders have said repeatedly that they wish to focus on major economic issues, from crafting a new state budget to reforming Medicaid to developing a new job creation package. But during the past four legislative days, it has been issues of morality and social conscience that have provoked the most debate and attention.
"How many weeks have we been here?" asked Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger when asked about the bevy of social debate during the past week, pointing out that lawmakers are in the midst of a long session that has handled a number of issues.
Berger, R-Rockingham, asked that question on the 70th legislative work day of the year that has also seen debate and angst over a proposed, but now stalled, religious freedom bill.
"I think people will look at what is it that we've spent the most time on, what is it we've spent the most energy on. We've been here since January," he said.
A week or two spent on non-economic issues does not mean the General Assembly is distracted, he said.
"If you look at it in terms of time spent, it's a very small percentage of the time spent," he argued. "Now, these are issues that represent, in some respects, fault lines between the Republicans and Democrats, between conservatives and liberals. So, there's no question there's going to be a brighter light shining when these issues come up. But I would seriously push back against (the suggestion) this is a primary focus of what we've done."
Berger is right to a point. House lawmakers have passed their version of the budget, and senators are on track to pass a budget bill in early June. Both chambers have already offered up a temporary fix to state transportation funding by way of an adjustment to North Carolina's gas tax, as well as a measure paving the way for electric rate relief in eastern North Carolina.
However, senators have yet to take up an economic development measure passed by the House and urgently sought by McCrory. While more mundane economic issues may be the order of most days, critics of the bills say the controversy over social issues is what people know about the state across the country.
"I get this feeling that, every once in a while in their caucus, the testosterone in the locker room takes over," Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, said Thursday after wrapping up debate on the now-vetoed magistrates bill.
Glazier says he believes that House Speaker Tim Moore has tried to focus on more budget-related issues but has been sidetracked by a number of social conservatives among the House's 74 GOP members.
"It's clear that the moderate wing of the Republican Party is not control, so the social issues continue to dominate the time and mental energy at times in the House Republican caucus," Glazier said.
The spasms of lawmaking surrounding social issues come as the population of the United States is becoming less overtly religious. According to polling by the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life, one in five North Carolinians say they are not part of any organized religion or identify as atheist or agnostic. The share of those not affiliated with any religion rose from 12 percent in 2007 to 20 percent in 2015, according to Pew.
Those numbers roughly jibe with recent findings by the Elon University Poll, which asked about religious preference as part of a survey that polled voters about the controversial religious freedom bill, which was designed to allow government and private business employees to eschew tasks that violate their consciences.
Despite any shift in religious affiliation, said Elon Poll director Kenneth Fernandez, North Carolina is a still a Bible belt stronghold where religion will play an important roll in public life for years to come. In particular, he said, some conservative legislators may see society's shifting mores as a call to codify what they can.
"I think they feel the need to represent the voice of a very vocal constituency," Fernandez said.
Indeed, Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, couched action on the magistrates bill as a battlement in a war that religious adherents did not start.
"This is not something a lot of us wanted to deal with and have thrust on us," Blust said during debate in the House. "I would rather not be dealing with this bill today. But I would point out to you, the left is the aggressor in these culture wars, and they're pushing, pushing, pushing and basically saying to anyone who has any philosophical or religious objections to it, 'Tough.'"
Whatever is happening with "the left" more broadly, the social right appears to enjoy an advantage at the legislature.
Nods to preserving Sunday for churchgoing, as one small example, give deference to the day Christians worship, not the holy days observed by Muslims or Jews. Protestors who come to the General Assembly under the banner of the "Moral Monday" movement often do so led by preachers calling for lawmakers to act on a moral obligation to care for the poor but are regularly dismissed by legislative leaders. Prayers that open session in the House and the Senate every day rarely leave any doubt as to the prevailing religious view on hand.
"And Lord, while we wrestle today with many challenges, keep us from the temptation of believing we've got it figured out or we only battle against flesh and blood. Pour out your anointing here on these friends so that you might make your plan plain and your purposes fulfilled in this great state. In Jesus' name, we pray," intoned Senate Chaplain Peter Milner.
Fernandez said that voters don't appear ready to punish lawmakers who govern from a particular moral perspective, although they do get uncomfortable with laws that get too close to dealing with religion directly.
"They feel that anything that starts to talk about religion begins to erode that separation of church and state," he said. "Once you start using the term religion, it's a double-edged sword."
In extreme examples, individuals claiming to be satanists in other states have pushed for the inclusion of statues on state capitol grounds and for changes in abortion laws based on their beliefs.
Closer to home, Glazier said, regardless of consequences at the ballot box, legislating from just one religious point of view could force North Carolina to pay an economic price.
"When the religious dogma controls very controversial positions that are either unconstitutional on their face or create enormous division within society, that is not a healthy thing," he said.
Such cases, he said, draw unwelcome attention to the state at a time when it is trying to recruit business.
Case in point – just before McCrory vetoed the magistrates bill, John Pope, the chairman of Cargo Transporters, wrote to urge McCrory to reject it.
"As a company based here that believes in full equality for our employees, we will not sit idly by and let the rogue legislators of this state ruin the business and employee recruiting opportunities for this state," Pope wrote to McCrory, adding that the company could shift plans to build a terminal near Rocky Mount to a site closer to Virginia.
Berger disputes the notion that the magistrates bill is swipe at equality. Rather, he said, it balances the interest of those who wish to provide for marriage equality and those who wish to adhere to their religious traditions. He added that it is not unusual for lawmakers to draw on their religious background when making laws.
"My feeling on that is that it is totally appropriate for individuals to have their religious beliefs help inform how they make decisions and the decisions that they make," he said. "I don't think that is by any stretch outside of a broad mainstream."