Supporters of North Carolina’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) gathered on the lawn of the lieutenant governor’s office building in Raleigh on April 28 to encourage lawmakers to pass the bill in the current legislative session. The crowd of more than 75 included religious leaders and legislators from Boone to Wilmington.
Speaker Tim Moore told the press on April 23 that the N.C. House would not consider RFRA this session. But statements made at the gathering contradict Moore’s announcement.
Two bills are waiting consideration, one in the House, HB 348, and one in the Senate, SB 550.
On the House side, primary sponsors of the legislation include Reps. Jacqueline Schaffer and Dan Bishop. Primary Senate sponsors include Sens. Warren Daniel, Buck Newton and Dan Souchek.
In a press conference outside Lt. Gov.Dan Forest’s office, Forest said RFRA is “an easy issue” for the people of North Carolina. “America could not be what America is today without religious freedom.”
“The most basic of all freedoms outlined in the first amendment of the constitution, the very first words in the very first amendment to the United States Constitution that allowed that constitution to be ratified by the states was the freedom of religion.” He emphasized that religious freedoms preceded freedom of speech, freedom of press and the freedom to assemble. “So, we think it is the basic foundational principle … that has made America what it is today.”
Sen. Souchek said legislators need to look at the essence of the bill. “In 1987 I raised my hand at West Point and swore the first article of the code of conduct of the U.S. Army, ‘I am an American fighting man serving the forces which guard my country and our way of life, and am prepared to give my life in its defense,’” he said.
“As a soldier I willingly said I will lay down my life for freedom in this country. Freedoms are what made this country great. Religious freedom is a foundational principle whether you look at our society, our family or even our businesses.”
Souchek disputes business leaders’ claims that RFRA is bad for the economy. Many states with “booming economies” have enacted this legislation, he said. “Freedom is never bad for the economy or for jobs. I support this for our families, I support this for our businesses and I think it’s just the right thing to do to continue our legacy as a beacon of freedom and hope in the world.”
Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, told the crowd, that religious freedom is a fundamental human right that has existed since the origin of the United States. “Some are trying to attribute wrong motives to this legislation and have put out a great deal of misinformation,” she said.
A similar bill has been passed in 28 states, and a federal law was passed 22 years ago and signed by then president, Bill Clinton. “This bill is a simple bill that allows North Carolinians to be free to live and work according to their beliefs,” Fitzgerald added. “It’s that simple. Others are trying to complicate this and say it is something besides that. But religious freedom is a basic human right that deserves protection under the law.”
Speakers regularly pointed to a recent poll that said 90 percent of North Carolina’s citizens believe religious freedom should be protected by law, and not left open for the courts to decide when individual religious freedom is burdened.
Fitzgerald said the proposed RFRA “is a balancing test that balances the rights of individuals to freely practice their beliefs in their lives and work against the interests of the government. The law says the government has a high burden of proof to burden someone’s religious freedom.”
Kelly Fiedorek, attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, spoke to the necessity of the state law. “You have absolute freedom of press, but unfortunately the U.S. supreme Court in 1990 substantially weakened the protection that courts give to religious freedom,” she said.
The federal law was introduced in the U.S. Senate by Ted Kennedy and had unanimous support in the house, Fiedorek explained. It was a bi-partisan effort.
“This is a common sense bill that simply insures that every citizen – regardless if you are a Democrat or Republican, whether you are gay or straight – regardless of what your beliefs are, this insures that you have a defense to make in court. It balances the government interests with citizens’ freedoms.” She said RFRA will provide the same dignity, fairness and tolerance as the freedom of press, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.
Dan Bishop, represents Charlotte in the N.C. House. “The freedoms in the constitution that we swore an oath of office to maintain, protect and defend are the bedrock upon which our success is founded, the success of all business is founded,” he said. Six of the ten fastest growing state economies in the United States are states that have a RFRA, according to Bishop. “We’ve had some setbacks,” he added. “The message that I am here today to deliver is that I don’t intend to stop fighting for this piece of legislation because it’s important.”
He said the encouragement of citizens gives him courage. “Courage is essential for leadership, but it sometimes seems almost incompatible with politics.” Bishop hopes momentum from the grassroots citizens will motivate legislators to pass RFRA.
Forest was asked about the bill’s status. “The bill was heard in committee and the decision is not made until time runs out on this session. We are running out of time for the house or senate to take this bill up on the floor, but we hope it happens and we are encouraged,” he said.
Fitzgerald said the law needs to be passed this year because there is uncertainty in the courts.
“The issue here is that N.C. law does not firmly embrace the strict scrutiny test which has always been used by courts around the country, including the U.S. Supreme court, to balance and evaluate when the government can intrude upon a person’s rights to freely exercise their religious beliefs,” she added.
Bartley Wooten, pastor of Beulaville Baptist Church, brought six church members to the capitol for Tuesday’s event. “This is one of the most important issues facing our culture and our country today,” he said. “If leaders aren’t willing to stand up for religious freedom I believe our country will go in a direction that will be destructive.”
The previous Sunday Wooten preached a sermon about the attacks on religious freedom. He said the message was a response to the encouragement of the church members who asked him to address the issue. He said they asked for a better understanding of the biblical response to the crisis.
Some opponents of RFRA are focused on promoting same-sex marriage. If the same-sex marriage mantra defeats RFRA in the state Wooten said he does not believe that will be the end of the conversation. “I think there is a greater agenda that is willing to minimalize and take away the voice of Christianity. My fear is that it will ultimately become illegal for a pastor to preach against same-sex marriage and religious persecution will follow,” he added.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — K. Alan Blume is the chief editor for the Biblical Recorder.)