North Carolina legislation that’s similar to Indiana’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act could come up for debate in the state House as soon as this week.
Identical bills were filed just last week in the House and Senate. And by Monday, there were signs that the firestorm that greeted Indiana’s recently enacted law could spread to North Carolina if the predominantly Republican legislature goes ahead with a similar measure.
Critics said the legislation would provide legal cover for businesses and individuals who discriminate against gays and lesbians. That charge was disputed by conservative Christian leaders, who said North Carolina needs a law to protect people as they exercise the religious liberty guaranteed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Republican Gov. Pat McCrory weighed in Monday, telling a Charlotte radio talk show audience that the bill, sponsored by members of his own party, “makes no sense.”
“What is the problem they’re trying to solve?” McCrory said during an interview on WFAE-FM. “I haven’t seen it at this point in time.”
McCrory, who has always been close to the business community, spoke in the wake of a corporate backlash against Indiana that had Mike Pence, that state’s Republican governor, playing defense all weekend on TV news talk shows and in other media.
Sen. Warren Daniel, a Morganton Republican who co-sponsored the Senate version, said the bill is needed to clarify religious protections.
“It’s important to protect the freedoms that people founded America for,” Daniel said. “This is not new. It’s the foundation of America.”
On Monday, American Airlines, which has its second-largest hub in Charlotte and employs thousands in the city, signaled it would fight the North Carolina legislation – just as it opposed a similar bill in Arizona that was vetoed last year by then-Gov. Jan Brewer. American CEO Doug Parker had raised the prospect of cutting flights in Arizona if the legislation had gone into effect.
“We believe no individual should be refused service or employment because of gender identity or sexual orientation,” American Airlines spokeswoman Michelle Mohr said in a statement. “…Laws like this will harm the economies of the states in which they are enacted, and would ultimately be a step in the wrong direction for a society that seeks tolerance, peace and prosperity for all.”
The Charlotte Chamber has not taken a position on the issue. But Bob Morgan, chamber CEO and president, said in a statement that: “We are caught off guard that anybody would consider this a priority at a time that North Carolina is struggling to reach consensus about our economic development future.”
The Charlotte Christian Chamber of Commerce could not be reached for comment.
But supporters of the bill said they didn’t believe legislative approval in Raleigh would hurt the state’s economy at all.
The Rev. Mark Harris, a Charlotte pastor who ran last year for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, said he was “highly disappointed” that McCrory did not see the benefit of having such a law in place before June, when many analysts are predicting the U.S. Supreme Court will rule same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.
State religious freedom laws in North Carolina and elsewhere, said Harris, who leads First Baptist Church of Charlotte, “would protect Christians from governments eager to advance the agenda that sexual rights are superior to religious liberty.”
Asked for an example of what behavior such a law would protect, Harris and legislative sponsors of the bills referred to a florist in Washington state who was sued after she refused, on religious grounds, to sell and arrange flowers for a same-sex wedding.
Some opponents of the North Carolina legislation are also members of the clergy.
The Rev. Robin Tanner, who leads the Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church in Charlotte, said that when the country’s founders exalted religious freedom, “they understood it as religious freedom from persecution, not religious freedom to persecute. The proposed laws, like Indiana’s, are unnecessary and harmful to the ideals of freedom.”
‘What has changed?’
Though the spotlight has recently been on Indiana, the host this year of the NCAA’s Final Four, 19 other states have Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. North Carolina would be the 21st.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 16 states have introduced legislation this year creating or altering a state religious freedom law. South Carolina, among others, has a RFRA but is considering legislation to amend or supplement it.
There’s also a federal RFRA, passed in 1993. But in a 1997 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said it did not apply to the states.
North Carolina Rep. Dan Bishop, a Charlotte Republican who co-sponsored the House version, said his bill is no different than that passed overwhelmingly by a Democratic Congress in 1993 and signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton.
“What has changed?” Bishop said Monday. “The answer is there’s sort of a political orthodoxy that’s emerged that doesn’t allow for reasoned debate on this issue. But I have a very strong view of robust protection of explicit constitutional rights, and this is just one of those.”
But Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat, said “it’s a different time” than when the 1993 federal bill passed.
“People are less tolerant of intolerance, frankly,” he said. “Most folks are absolutely correct that it ushers in a legalized form of discrimination. The state really ought not get involved in creating a structure that easily leads to discriminatory conduct.”
The House bill has 19 co-sponsors; the Senate version, five.
ACLU will work for defeat
Groups supporting and opposing the bills have already begun gearing up in Raleigh.
The North Carolina Values Coalition will put its full weight behind the bill, said Executive Director Tami Fitzgerald, who added that she and other supporters are not put off by businesses that hint at boycotts if the legislation is passed.
“These businesses ought to consider if they themselves will be boycotted,” she said, “in standing up against religious freedom.”
On the other side, the ACLU of North Carolina will be working the legislature to try to defeat the bill, said Policy Director Sarah Preston.
She said the North Carolina bills would have the same impact as the Indiana law. And she warned that the effects of the legislation could be more far-reaching than even its critics realize.
“Any individual or corporation could refuse to abide by any law under the guise of religious freedom,” Preston said. “Somebody could violate the noise ordinance because their religion compels them to drum all night long.”
Lynn Bonner of the (Raleigh) News & Observer and Observer staff writer Ely Portillo contributed.