On the very day Indiana Gov. Mike Pence set off a national backlash last week by signing his state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, three N.C. senators filed nearly identical legislation in Raleigh.
Two days earlier, the same bill was filed in the House by two Mecklenburg Republicans: Dan Bishop and Jacqueline Schaffer.
The North Carolina Religious Freedom Restoration Act, like the Indiana law, would allow individuals and businesses not to serve customers if doing so violates their sincerely held religious beliefs.
“State action shall not burden a person’s right to exercise of religion,” the bills say. The exercise of religion, the bills say, “includes, but is not limited to, the ability to act or refuse to act in a manner substantially motivated by one’s sincerely held religious beliefs, whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief.”
We’re big First Amendment people, and are all for religious freedom. But the reality is that the legislation or laws in North Carolina, Indiana and a couple dozen other states represent state approval of discrimination. The most obvious victims are the gay residents who increasingly are winning equality through the courts – and who are likely to get the ultimate backing from the U.S. Supreme Court this summer.
Given the permissive definition of “religion” in the bills, though, the allowed discrimination would hardly stop with the LGBT community. Even if such cases are only episodic, even one is too many and the state’s image takes a hit.
Pence defended the Indiana law by saying he doesn’t think it legalizes discrimination, and N.C. legislators will say it is simply about freedom of religion. But in practice the bills undeniably open the door to discrimination against almost anyone.
The fallout in Indiana was immediate. Salesforce, a $4 billion company, said it would “dramatically reduce our investments in Indiana.” The NCAA, which is holding the Final Four in Indianapolis next weekend, suggested it would reconsider holding future events there. The state’s largest convention – Gen Con – said it would consider moving. The Disciples of Christ may move its 2017 convention. And Yelp’s CEO said the company would not expand in states with such laws.
That’s progress of a sort. Nineteen states passed similar bills over the past 20 years with little fanfare. The outrage we’re seeing in Indiana shows the new awareness of LGBT equality.
Does North Carolina really want to go down this road? Do we want to sanction discrimination by letting anyone deny service to whomever they please? Do we want to jeopardize conventions, job growth and the ability to recruit?
Arizona was going to last year, but under pressure from the NFL and others, Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the bill. If it reaches his desk, Gov. Pat McCrory should do the same here.