CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Long expected by LGBT advocates, Republican legislators in North Carolina this week introduced so-called “religious freedom” bills that could open the door to widespread discrimination against LGBT residents and others.
Similar legislation was recently passed by Indiana’s legislature and signed by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence on Thursday.
The legislation, the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” was introduced in the North Carolina House of Representatives on Tuesday (House Bill 348). The exact same language was introduced as a bill in the state Senate on Thursday (Senate Bill 550).
Equality North Carolina, the statewide LGBT advocacy organization, slammed the legislation this week.
“With the Senate’s version of this discriminatory bill, North Carolina’s conservative leadership in both legislative chambers have now officially launched their efforts to dress up anti-LGBT discrimination by calling it ‘religious freedom,'” Chris Sgro, Equality North Carolina executive director, said in a release on Thursday. “While the bill does not expressly mention the LGBT community, we’ve seen this cynical tactic play out in many parts of the country in many different ways. Now these leaders are bringing this divisive debate to our state where North Carolina’s true values of fairness and equality are under attack.”
Sgro added, “In the wake of these threats from our state’s most extreme anti-LGBT leaders, we ask our supporters to join us right now as we prepare to fight this, and any attacks on LGBT North Carolinians, during this legislative session.”
North Carolina’s legislation would allow individuals, businesses, associations and others the right to ignore laws which they say violate their religious beliefs.
“State action shall not burden a person’s right to exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability,” the legislation reads.
LGBT advocates have said it could allow businesses and individuals to ignore existing or future non-discrimination laws. The proposed law’s definition of “exercise of religion” is overly vague, defining it as: “The practice or observance of religion. It 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.”
Potential instances of discrimination made legal under the act affect not only LGBT residents, but also other minorities.
This week’s legislation had been promised by state House Speaker Pro Tempore Skip Stam earlier this year. The legislation was supposed to have been discussed by leading North Carolina-based hate groups and legislators at a briefing in January, though that event was later canceled.
The state is already considering another so-called “religious freedom” bill, Senate Bill 2, designed to exempt magistrates and registers of deeds from assisting citizens and residents with civil same-gender marriages. It passed the Senate on Feb. 25 and is currently in a state House committee.