Politics & Government

Schaffer takes center stage on conservative social issues


She was once an aspiring singer at a Nashville college who might have gone on to a performing career in country or Christian music.

But Jacqueline Schaffer took a different direction.

Her stage is now the North Carolina General Assembly, where she’s championed some of the session’s most socially conservative and controversial legislation.

The southeast Charlotte Republican is a prime sponsor of bills on religious freedom, restricting abortion and loosening control of guns – a hot-button trinity that energizes supporters and inflames critics.

“She’s willing to take tough stands on issues she feels strongly about,” said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the N.C. Values Coalition. “She has a lot of courage.”

Critics say the measures go too far.

“Her views have been very extreme and I think outside the views of where most North Carolinians are, and especially in her district (which includes Ballantyne),” said Democratic Rep. Tricia Cotham of Matthews.

Schaffer, 33, is a lawyer who has carved out a niche on issues she is passionate about and also has trained for. “It’s my background,” she said. “It’s my area of expertise.”

Rep. Paul Stam, a Wake County lawmaker and ally, calls her “our expert on the First Amendment.”

A Virginia native, Schaffer came to Charlotte when her father brought the family’s executive search firm to town.

From Charlotte Christian School, she enrolled at Belmont University, a Christian school in Nashville, and transferred to Raleigh’s Meredith College, where she majored in political studies.

She went on to get a law degree from Regent University, a school founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson, where she studied public interest law and headed the campus anti-abortion group.

Schaffer went to Washington as counsel for government affairs with the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative legal group also founded by Robertson. It specializes in constitutional law and promotes traditional values.

At ACLJ she helped with the center’s human rights efforts and worked on briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court defending the rights of parents to home school and fighting attempts to ban guns.

Fighting for traditional values

Schaffer continued to work on such issues after returning to Charlotte in 2009 to join her family’s business as general counsel. She lives with her parents at their home near Providence Country Club.

In 2012, a month before her first election, she wrote an article for Family North Carolina, the magazine of North Carolina Family Policy Council. The headline: “Marriage: In Society’s Moral Crosshairs.”

“It is no wonder the Nation has taken a moral nosedive, particularly when it comes to marriage and the family,” she wrote. “The greatest threat to marriage and morality in this country today … is the advent of homosexual ‘marriage’ …

“Any state endorsement of the homosexual lifestyle will have an adverse impact on religious freedom. Laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity … harm religious freedom by ‘penalizing private citizens with dissenting viewpoints on marriage, family, and sexuality.’”

The piece came after state voters overwhelmingly supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Now that courts have legalized such marriage, she stands by the piece.

Gay marriage, she says, “is a threat to traditional marriage because of the impact it has on children.”

“What we want is for those rights to be able to co-exist, and not have another right subordinated to another right.”

Digging into issues

That’s why she and others introduced a Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Similar laws sparked backlashes in Indiana and Arkansas. Supporters say they will protect people as they exercise their religious liberty. Critics say they’ll give legal cover to businesses and individuals who discriminate against gays and lesbians.

She was also a primary sponsor of a bill to increase the waiting period for an abortion from 24 hours to 72 hours. The measure, which has 41 co-sponsors, also would ban abortions at health care facilities owned by the University of North Carolina and East Carolina University.

Schaffer told reporters that the bill “is really focusing on the health decisions of the women making these decisions.” A Planned Parenthood spokeswoman called it a “shameful” effort to “sacrifice women’s health” for political ideology.

For the past two sessions, Schaffer has sponsored legislation opposed by anti-gun groups that expands the number of places where guns can be carried. In 2013, she co-sponsored a bill to ban the recognition of Islamic Sharia law in North Carolina courts.

Republican Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews said her ideas “have a lot of thought and scholarship behind (them).”

Republican Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville said that while he respects her passion, “she would become an even better member if she would widen the scope of the legislation that she would pursue.”

Schaffer said all lawmakers have their areas of expertise. “I’m going to devote my time to things where I can bring more to the table,” she said.

But the classically trained pianist said she also can hit other notes, whether it’s co-sponsoring bills on domestic violence or helping raising the speed limit on I-485. She said that, like other lawmakers, she wants what’s best for the state.

“We each have a desire for North Carolina to prosper,” she said. “And sure, we’re going to come to the table with different ideas on how to make that occur, but we’re really doing this for the same reason – to benefit our citizens.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059

Related stories from Charlotte Observer