Business groups are wary of it. Gov. McCrory has said he won't sign it. It's caused intense acrimony in other states where it's been introduced—most recently Indiana, where Gov. Mike Pence has asked his legislature to "clarify" its intent after finding himself on the wrong end of a torrent of nationwide criticism and talk of boycotts.
And yet, last week Republicans in both chambers of the North Carolina Legislature forged ahead with their own version of a "religious freedom" bill.
Titled the "NC Religious Freedom Restoration Act," House Bill 348 and Senate Bill 550 would allow citizens to object to municipal and county laws they say run counter to their religious beliefs. In practice, they would override local antidiscrimination ordinances and give license to governments and private individuals alike to fire or refuse to do business with those to whom they have a religious objection—the target, quite obviously, being gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people.
"It's clear the trend with these bills is coming in an obvious reaction to the freedom to marry being recognized for the LGBT community," says Sarah Preston, policy director for the ACLU of North Carolina. "Protections exist for gay and lesbian people, but this bill would allow individuals to refuse to provide services."
While sexual orientation and gender expression aren't covered by state and federal antidiscrimination laws, some local governments have taken up the cause.
Last fall, for example, Raleigh became the sixth city in North Carolina to extend its workplace-antidiscrimination policy to cover transgender people along with gays and lesbians. In January, Greensboro became the state's first municipality to extend the full spectrum of protections—employment, housing and public accommodations—to LGBT individuals. On March 2, Charlotte nearly followed suit, though its antidiscrimination ordinance ultimately failed on a 6-5 vote.
Chris Sgro, director of Equality North Carolina, condemned the bills in a statement last week: "North Carolina's true values of fairness and equality are under attack."
Republicans counter that the government shouldn't be allowed to compel someone to do something contrary to his deeply held beliefs. If you're a baker who objects to gay marriage, they say, you shouldn't be obliged to bake a cake for a gay couple's wedding, even if local laws prohibit such discrimination. (An unintended consequence: The First Church of Cannabis recently established itself in Indiana, and now its members can make a legitimate case that they should be allowed to smoke dope.)
But the bills' supporters don't have the governor on their side. McCrory told a radio interviewer Monday that he doesn't understand the problems the bills purport to fix and hinted that he wouldn't sign either a religious-freedom bill or another proposal to allow magistrates to refuse to marry couples based on their religious objections. "I don't think you should have an exemption when you took an oath to uphold [the state constitution]," he said.
Then again, it's not clear how much McCrory's opinion will matter. A Chamber-style Republican, he's not well liked by the Legislature's movement conservatives, who may have the numbers to override his veto—assuming the legislation makes it that far without the business community strangling it in its cradle.
In other states—including Georgia, Texas, Utah, Wyoming and Oklahoma—similar religious-freedom bills have been decried by business leaders, who say they interfere with their ability to attract and retain talent. Last winter, Georgia lawmakers caved and deep-sixed the legislation, though a new bill is back this session. Former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, also under pressure, vetoed a religious-freedom bill last winter.
In Indiana, meanwhile, Pence signed a religious-freedom bill into law last Thursday; that same day, NCAA President Mike Emmert said the law might cause his organization to reconsider hosting events in the state (the Final Four takes place in Indianapolis this weekend). Multimillion-dollar company Angie's List scrapped plans for a $40 million expansion and said it might move some operations out of Indiana. Over the weekend, Pence backtracked, claiming the bill was never intended as a vehicle for anti-LGBT discrimination.
The North Carolina Chamber of Commerce told the INDY in an email, "We are currently assessing this legislation to better understand its impact on North Carolina jobs." Entrepreneurs, however, say the fallout from these bills is already affecting them.
"It's an embarrassment when I go out of town to try and work with people out of state and I have to discuss this in business conversations," says Tony Cope, founder and executive producer of Raleigh-based video-production company Myriad Media, which has quadrupled in size since 2008 and expanded into New York City and Vancouver. "Most of our corporate clients have strict antidiscrimination policies, and I feel I am being judged and questioned on those because our state doesn't seem to be respecting those policies right now."
Cope says businesses like his thrive on hiring young talent: "That generation just does not understand and doesn't accept this type of legislation. This top talent we are chasing say they have no interest in exposing themselves, their friends and families to this hostile environment. The Legislature is throwing hurdles in my path."
The bills' sponsors did not return the INDY's phone calls.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The right to discriminate"