CHARLOTTE, N.C. — North Carolina legislators last year proposed a bill opening the door to legal discrimination against LGBT people and other minorities by individuals, businesses and, potentially, government officials who claim objections due to religious belief. Several similar pieces of legislation have been recently debated in states across the country, including one passed in Arizona on Thursday and now awaiting Gov. Jan Brewer’s signature.
Last April, 14 Republicans in the North Carolina House of Representatives proposed their own “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” The text of the bill is similar to the bill awaiting final approval in Arizona.
If passed in North Carolina, the bill (HB 751) would prohibit the state or any of its agencies and local governments from “substantially burden[-ing] a person’s free exercise of religion.” In theory, that would effectively cut off any potential legal recourse for a customer refused service by the owner of a restaurant, hotel or other business. Or, it could allow individual government employees — such as city or county clerks, paramedics and other first responders, social service workers and others — to refuse to provide assistance or service to individual citizens. The law also includes religious discrimination protections for any “corporation, firm, partnership, association, or organization.”
The bill is particularly concerning for LGBT North Carolinians, who already have no protection from discrimination in public accommodations, housing or employment. The law could also potentially be used to discriminate against other minorities.
Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality North Carolina, said he doesn’t believe legislators will attempt to pass the bill this year.
“I’m confident that the people of North Carolina and the legislature in North Carolina are reasonable enough that they would never try to advance such a bill,” Sgro said.
Last year’s bill didn’t make the legislature’s self-imposed “crossover deadline.” It isn’t technically eligible for consideration this year, but could be amended into any bill on the legislature’s calendar when they return to Raleigh in May. Similar bills are eligible for consideration, including one protecting the right of religious student organizations on public college campuses to discriminate in their membership. This year’s session is normally reserved for budget negotiations. Some sources say Republican leadership will likely want to keep the session as short as possible and non-controversial heading into fall elections.
Sgro said his group will be keeping an eye on problematic legislation while advancing forward on other inclusive measures.
“Equality North Carolina will continue to fight against discrimination and, in fact, we hope members of the legislature will consider employment non-discrimination in the near future,” he said.
Religious freedom protection laws aren’t new, as Mother Jones reports. A federal version was passed in 1993, though a later federal court ruling in 1997 limited its applicability to the states. Eighteen states now have their own religious freedom acts. Eleven other states have similar protections through court action.
The rash of recent legislation began in 2012, after several anti-LGBT business owners were sued for refusing to provide service to gay customers. The cases have included a New Mexico wedding photographer, an Oregon baker and a florist in Washington state.
“Let’s be clear about what these businesses—and their activist supporters—want. They want religious exemptions that will trump existing civil rights laws,” Sally Steenland, director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress, said late last year. “They want to be able to legally discriminate against gays and lesbians in the name of religion. In their view, florists, bakers, caterers, jewelers, photographers, wedding-dress shop owners, tuxedo-rental owners, and a host of other commercial establishments should be able to turn away gay and lesbian couples without getting sued for discrimination.”
Several recent bills — in Kansas, Idaho, Oregon, South Dakota and Tennessee — specifically sought to protect “religious” discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or against same-sex couples. Others, including the one in Arizona and last year’s proposal in North Carolina, don’t mention sexual orientation or same-sex couples. Still, critics have blasted all versions of the bills, most of them withdrawn or tabled, as a means to broader discrimination.
Truth Wins Out’s Evan Hurst told Mother Jones the recent rash to pass new religious freedom legislation amounts to a “concerted Hail Mary campaign to carve out special rights for religious conservatives so that they don’t have to play by the same rules as everyone else does.”
Hurst added, “In this new up-is-down world, anti-gay religious folks are ‘practicing their faith’ when they’re baking cakes or renting out hotel rooms to travelers. On the ground, [these bills] hurt real, live LGBT people.”