By M.H. Cavanaugh
Christian Action League
April 3, 2015
RALEIGH – Some lawmakers in the N.C. House wanted a committee meeting this week on a religious liberty bill, HB 348 – NC Religious Freedom Restoration Act. (SB 550 is companion legislation in the Senate.) But the firestorm surrounding a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in Indiana seemed to quell the interest of leadership in dealing with such legislation at this time.
Critics of the legislation in Indiana erroneously argued it would allow for discrimination against gays and lesbians. Thousands in the state protested the passage of the RFRA signed into law by Governor Mike Pence. Major corporate giants such as Apple, Marriott International, Indianapolis-based Eli-Lily and Angie’s List came out against the legislation and demanded either a fix or repeal. Even the NCAA, the collegiate sports association, headquartered in Indianapolis, came out against the measure. Objections to the law resulted in Governor Mike Pence’s call for a revision, which some argue essentially gutted its intended protections.
The situation also put similar pressures on Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson after Arkansas passed a RFRA last week. Also caught up in the wake of the intense backlash in Indiana, Hutchinson asked for a couple of tweaks to the Arkansas legislation so that it mirrored the federal RFRA signed by President Clinton in 1993.
Because North Carolina has two RFRA bills waiting in the wings, Speaker Tim Moore apparently wanted to get out ahead of the controversy by holding an impromptu press conference on Tuesday. Moore said the legislation was important to some Republicans, but this year’s legislative session would focus on job creation, road improvement and education. He said he was concerned about the way RFRA legislation could affect North Carolina’s “brand.” He added the House would be deliberate in any consideration of HB 348.
Although Senate President Pro-Tempore, Phil Berger sponsored SB 2 – Magistrates Recusal for Civil Ceremonies, a bill that would provide magistrates and register of deeds with sincerely held religious objections an opt-out from servicing a same-sex marriage, Berger also indicated RFRA legislation was not a high priority this year. He has only said, “It’s been filed. A decision will be made as to whether or not we move it forward.”
On Monday, Governor Pat McCrory said in a radio interview on WFAE – FM that he was opposed to a RFRA bill and would not sign it. He said he was also opposed to Berger’s SB 2. McCrory said the RFRA legislation “makes no sense.” “What is the problem they are trying to solve? I haven’t seen it at this point in time.”
Corporate interest located in the Tar Heel state also weighed in. NASCAR, American Airlines and WAL-Mart said they were against RFRA legislation, while a new business coalition called Compete North Carolina is being formed to oppose any RFRA legislation.
RFRA laws are not something new. In 1993, when Charles Schumer of New York was a Representative in the U.S. House, he introduced the first RFRA. Its counterpart was co-sponsored in the U.S. Senate by the late Senator Edward Kennedy. The bill enjoyed such overwhelming support that it passed by a voice vote in the House and easily sailed through the Senate by a 97-3 margin. President Clinton then promptly signed it into law.
RFRA essentially requires that government should not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion unless it can prove it has a compelling state interest. Moreover, if it has a compelling state interest, then it may only interfere in the least restrictive means possible.
In a 1997 Supreme Court case, City of Boerne v. Flores, the High Court ruled the federal government did not have the authority to impose the standards of RFRA on the states. If the state’s wanted such standards, they would have to adopt them on their own. Thus, twenty states passed their own versions of RFRA. More than a dozen states across the country are currently considering RFRA laws or similar legislation aimed at preventing government interference with the practice of religion.
In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the scope of RFRA by ruling the federal government could not require the company to offer its workers’ health insurance that paid for emergency contraceptives. Hobby Lobby had refused on the basis of its owner’s religious beliefs.
Dr. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, said the situation on a national scale and the hesitancy now on the part of North Carolina leaders to take-up RFRA legislation was disturbing.
“Much is currently being said in the media about Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA). And unfortunately, what is being said is largely an egregious fear mongering disinformation campaign bolstered by corporate bullying tactics,” said Dr. Creech.
“RFRA laws are not about a restaurant owner refusing to serve a gay couple. It isn’t about declining housing or prohibiting gay couples from renting a room at a bed and breakfast. It’s irresponsible and down-right deceptive to say RFRA is Jim Crow all over again. If that’s what RFRA laws were about, why haven’t such laws been used this way in the states where they’ve been enacted and in place for several years?
“Let me tell you what RFRA is about,” said Dr. Creech. “It’s about shielding people of faith from unjust government coercion. Even if these laws were used as some say they could be used, it wouldn’t guarantee such actions in the name of religion would trump anything. It would only allow both parties to have their day in court and require government demonstrate a compelling state interest in preventing someone from practicing a certain tenant of their faith.
“RFRA might also protect someone who owns a business that believes marriage is only between a man and a woman and any other form of marriage is immoral. It might protect charities and private schools that believe the same. It might prevent the government from forcing citizens who believe in traditional marriage from having to celebrate a same-sex wedding or penalize them if they don’t. RFRA simply protects the right to dissent. God help us if we aren’t even afforded a standard whereby in court we can dissent on the grounds of some sincerely held religious belief,” Dr. Creech added.
According to an AP-GfK poll released in February of 2015, Fifty-Seven percent of Americans support the right of a business to refuse providing wedding services to same-sex couples based on religious belief.
The same poll found 50% of Americans agree that state and local officials who issue marriage licenses and perform weddings ought to be exempt from doing so if it violates their religious convictions.
Moreover, the poll found 8 in 10 Republicans support the right to refuse wedding-related services to same sex couples on religious grounds, while 45% of Democrats also agreed with the right to refuse.