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North Carolina doesn't need a religious freedom bill to be anti-LGBT

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Bless her heart, Memories Pizza co-owner Crystal O'Connor was simply espousing her version of Christianity when she said that her family's shop in Walkerton, Indiana, would never cater a same-sex wedding.

Jokes optional here. My favorite was the guy who quipped that no gays anywhere would choose stale pizza for their wedding.

Not a joke, however: As of Monday, 29,000 people, told that "religious liberty is under attack in Indiana," pledged $842,442 for the embattled O'Connor clan via a GoFundMe page.

Well, there's no law against making a buck with religion.

But what if the law goes the other way, permitting business owners to violate anti-discrimination statutes if they can show that following them would "substantially burden" an asserted religious tenet?

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed his state's so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act two weeks ago and proceeded to feign disbelief that anyone might think it sanctioned anti-LGBT discrimination—wink, wink.

Pence is a prospective candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, so consider the RFRA his ticket to prospect in right-wing churches.

On the other hand, Pence seemed genuinely surprised at the outcry that arose against Indiana and, later, against Arkansas, where legislators passed a similar law. Naturally, the LGBT community there was up in arms. So, too, was big business, including Apple Corp. and Walmart—a powerful Arkansas corporation.

In North Carolina, as the INDY's Jane Porter reported last week (see "The Right to Discriminate," April 1), right-wing Republicans are pushing their own RFRA legislation (House Bill 348 and Senate Bill 550). Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who's nothing if not pro-business, says he doesn't see the need. House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican, asked if it might harm North Carolina's "brand."

Harm it? In an odd way, it might help it.

I say that because, in my opinion, little if any discrimination would be sanctioned by a RFRA that doesn't occur already in North Carolina. Meanwhile, by arguing that religious exceptions should be carved into anti-discrimination statutes that protect gay rights, RFRA proponents are unwittingly reminding us of the need for such anti-discrimination statutes in the first place.

Three points:

• While debates about the RFRA have focused on sales and services to gays, employment issues are more critical for the LGBT community.

• In the employment sphere, the real problem is that North Carolina lacks an Employment Non-Discrimination Act to protect LGBT people against biased hiring, firing, pay and promotions. Without an ENDA, who needs a RFRA?

• Finally, if conservatives want to privatize the public sector (and they do) and hand government functions to businesses, a RFRA that allows such businesses to indulge their religious biases would clash with claims that privatization is in the public interest.

On the first point, proponents and opponents of RFRAs point to a handful of cases such as the New Mexico photography studio that refused to staff a gay wedding and was sued for unlawful discrimination. Proponents think the studio's religious rights should be validated. Opponents think the studio is a public accommodation and therefore obliged—as the Greensboro lunch counter was in 1960—to serve all customers equally.

Who's right? The opponents are, if the business is open to the public. But let's face it: Most professionals, whether photographers, florists or accountants, can choose whom they want as clients by telling everyone else that they're booked up or backed up. No need to say, "I don't work for gays."

Meanwhile, even Crystal O'Connor agrees that, when Memories Pizza is open, it must sell pizzas to any and all—gay or straight, mushrooms or pepperoni.

Contrast that with the appliance salesman or teacher who comes out and gets canned—just because he's gay. North Carolina is one of 29 states without an ENDA to protect them, and there is no federal ENDA.

Which means the bosses don't need "religious freedom" to be jerks.

In the General Assembly, SB 612 and HB 443 would correct this problem for public employers only, amending North Carolina's Human Resources Act to add sexual orientation and gender identity or expression as protected classifications. Private companies would not be covered. The primary sponsors are progressive Democrats, including Sen. Mike Woodard and Rep. Paul Luebke, both of Durham.

ENDA legislation is a top priority for Equality NC, the LGBT advocacy group, though with the RFRA threatening, it's been forced to play defense.

Still, without the RFRA, the anti-discrimination bills would be dead without a hearing. But in a RFRA debate, employment discrimination will be front and center; let's hear Republicans defend it.

On the final point, consider the charter school that, with taxpayer funding, teaches creationism instead of evolution, or the Christian schools that, with taxpayer-funded vouchers, teach that the Earth is 6,000 years old.

With privatization, such things are already happening. The one difference a RFRA would make is to underline that we've sacrificed quality education in the name of religious rights. And it might remind us why religion and government are a bad mix—just as the Framers said in the First Amendment.

Bob Geary is an INDY columnist. He can be reached at rjgeary@mac.com.

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