‘Religious freedom’ bill now in General Assembly

‘Religious freedom’ bill now in General Assembly
April 09
00:00 2015
(Above:  N.C. Rep. Ed Hanes and N.C. Sen. Paul Lowe)

North Carolina’s own version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and other bills that effect the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community are currently pending in the state legislature.

The N.C. Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) — companion House Bill 348 and Senate Bill 550, which were filed in late March — is currently in committee. The bill gives individuals, businesses or other legal entities a legal defense against state action that burdens an “exercise of religion.”

Critics fear that this could result in businesses picking who they serve based on religious belief, giving a defense to discrimination, especially against the LGBT community. A similar RFRA law passed in Indiana has caused a backlash with widespread national condemnation and boycotts of the state. Indiana lawmakers scrambled to revise the law by adding non-discrimination language to it last week.

Gov. Pat McCrory has already voiced opposition to the N.C. RFRA, saying some items in it “made no sense.” The bill has drawn condemnation from the LGBT rights group Equality NC as well as the N.C. Council of Churches. American Airlines, which has its second largest hub in Charlotte, has already issued a statement against it.

N.C. Sen. Paul Lowe and N.C. Rep. Ed Hanes, both Democrats, have said they will vote against the Republican-sponsored bill should it come to the floor.

“You shouldn’t discriminate against anyone,” said Lowe. “Every American should have protection under the law, every American.”

Another bill both lawmakers oppose is Senate Bill 2, which would allow magistrates, along with assistant and deputy register of deeds, to recuse themselves from performing marriages based on religious grounds. The bill was written as a solution to magistrates in some counties quitting instead of performing same-sex marriages. Same-sex marriage became legal in North Carolina in October after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up an appeal on same-sex marriage bans. It is now legal in 37 states.  Under the bill, recusals would apply for six months to all marriages if filed by a magistrate and would allow those who quit to come back to their jobs.  The bill requires the county to find someone willing to perform a couple’s same sex-marriage, even going so far as to require a district court judge to perform marriages if no magistrates can do it.

S.B. 2 passed with a 48-32 vote that was largely down party lines in the Senate. Almost all Democrats, including Lowe, voted against it, and all but two Republicans voted for it. The bill is currently in the House judiciary committee.

“We don’t get to pick and choose when we want to do our jobs,” said Hanes. “I think that bill strikes against the fundamental idea that we have, that they have a fundamental service to the state and if they don’t want to perform a service to the state, they’re more than welcome to leave the position.”

Forsyth County Chief Magistrate John Phillips said he didn’t think the bill would be necessary locally. He has 18 magistrates under him who do a variety of legal tasks beyond marriages. They work in teams of three or four magistrates. Phillips said if one magistrate is uncomfortable with marrying a same-sex couple, it’s simply given to another magistrate.

“That seems to work real well, no one is delayed. No one is turned away,” he said.

If there’s only one magistrate available, he or she must perform the marriage regardless of their religious beliefs. Phillips said he’s had no magistrates object to doing their job. He said there was never a big rush of same-sex couples to local magistrates, probably because they prefer to be married at local churches instead.

Winston-Salem PLAG  (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) opposes both bills. Scott Money, the facilitator for the local chapter of the national support and advocacy group, said the LGBT community has been very glad to see legalization of same-sex marriage and progress that has been made, such as inclusive policies by many large employers for same sex-couples. He said he was disappointed by legislation he considered discriminatory and hopes hard-fought gains are not lost.

“We’ believe every citizen of the city and the state should have the same rights as every other citizen of the city and the state,” he said. “We feel in that regard we’ve come a long way  and we hope that can continue to keep moving in a positive direction.”

Last week, companion bills, H.B. 443  and S.B. 612,  were filed by Democrats to give protections to state employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity and would require school boards to have a similar non-discrimination policy. Hanes said he would support it.

The state legislative battles aren’t the only ones brewing on LGBT issues. On April 28, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on the legality of state bans on same-sex marriage.

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Todd Luck

Todd Luck

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