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Local lawmakers co-sponsor ‘religious freedom’ bills

Indiana’s new “religious freedom” law has become a lightning rod for criticism, but similar bills — both co-sponsored by local legislators — have been introduced in N.C. House and Senate.

With an identical name to Indiana’s bill — The Religious Freedom Restoration Act — North Carolina’s proposals say state action cannot inhibit a person’s right to exercise his or her religion.

State Rep. Carl Ford, R-76, and state Sen. Andrew Brock, R-34, have co-sponsored the bill in their respective legislative bodies. The House bill was filed on March 24 and the Senate’s version was introduced two days later. Critics say such legislation can be used to discriminate by protecting businesses and individuals who do not want to serve gays and lesbians, such as florists or caterers who might be hired for a same-sex wedding. Proponents say the bill would provide protection for the exercise of religion — a freedom guaranteed in the Constitution’s First Amendment.

More than two dozen other states have taken steps to pass similar measures or have proposed measures pending.

Brock on Tuesday characterized criticism as an incorrect interpretation of the bill’s original intent.

“It’s been mischaracterized and misrepresented by a lot of people about the actual intention,” Brock said. “It already exists in a lot of other states. It’s also something that many Democrats supported, including (President) Barack Obama when he was in Illinois as a state senator. (The bill) just protects a person’s first amendment rights and practice of their religion.”

Ford also cited the number of states that have taken similar measures when asked about the “religious freedom” bill.

“It codifies federal law from 1993,” Ford said in a text message. “(The bill is) protecting the religious rights of the citizens of N.C. More than 20 states have already passed this bill.”

The measure referred to by Ford — the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993— has also been referenced during discussion about the Indiana law. State legislation across America largely mirrors the federal law, but state versions were first introduced after the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997 ruled the federal measure didn’t apply to local and state government.

Critics of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act across many states have said the laws grant the ability to claim a law or policy violates religious beliefs. The Institute for Southern Studies — a Durham-based, non-profit group — calls North Carolina’s bill worse than Indiana’s.

“It makes it easier for individuals to claim a law or policy is a threat to their religious beliefs, and to sue to opt out of complying,” the group stated in a lengthy analysis of the bill on its website.

In the analysis, the institute cites the omission in North Carolina’s bill of the word “substantial” as a significant change in the benchmark for determining the degree of burden on a person’s religious freedom. Indiana’s bill includes  “substantial” in a section that North Carolina’s law mimics.

“A person whose exercise of religion has been substantially burdened, or is likely to be substantially burdened may assert the violation or impending violation as a claim or defense in a judicial or administrative proceeding,” the Indiana law states.

Gov. Pat McCrory is among the N.C. legislation’s many critics. In an interview earlier this week on WFAE, Charlotte’s National Public Radio Station, he said the bill isn’t a solution to an existing problem in North Carolina.

N.C. House speaker Tim Moore said Tuesday that discussions over the “religious freedom” bill will slow to see if the legislation would harm the state’s economy, especially in light of criticism over Indiana’s law, the Associated Press reported. Moore said the bill shouldn’t move through the House unless the measure “improves North Carolina’s brand.” No committee meetings on the bill have been scheduled.

Indiana lawmakers this week sought to clarify the original intent of their law with a follow-up bill. Regardless, multiple corporations have expressed opposition to Indiana’s measure. On Tuesday, NASCAR released a statement criticizing the Indiana bill. Duke University officials did the same on Monday.

American Airlines, which has a hub in Charlotte, has expressed opposition to the North Carolina bills.

Many cities across the nation have passed fairness ordinances to prevent forms of discrimination — a concern among opponents to the North Carolina and Indiana legislation.

Charlotte’s city council, for example, recently considered a non-discrimination ordinance that would have added sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression as protected categories under its city code. Among other things, the change would have made it the city’s policy to not enter into a contract with businesses that have discriminated in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation. The changes would have also made it unlawful to deny a person “the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of a place of public accommodation.

It failed by a 6-5 vote.

Salisbury Mayor Paul Woodson said he was unfamiliar with the proposed North Carolina bills, but wouldn’t agree with any sort of discriminatory business practices in Salisbury.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.

 

 

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