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Watching drones, prayer and unions

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It's difficult to predict what legislation will come up during this summer's General Assembly short session, but it seems to be shaping up to be noticeably less sweeping than last year. However, observers pointed out several bills to keep on the radar:

Unmanned Aircraft Regulation:
Last August, a provision in the state budget put a two-year moratorium on the state's purchase and operation of drones in order to draw up a set of regulations governing the technology.

The moratorium expires in July 2015, meaning that if lawmakers have not agreed on a set of regulations by then, drones in North Carolina will be entirely unregulated. This would present a legal and civil liberties nightmare. The Federal Aviation Administration has estimated that by 2020, there could be as many as 30,000 drones in the air across the United States.

Lawmakers and drone industry lobbyists killed HB 312, the "Preserving Privacy Act of 2013," a decent and ACLU-backed set of regulations that would have reined in law enforcement use of drones by requiring them to get warrants to collect evidence against an individual. HB 312 also required law enforcement to have a factual basis for any search or surveillance they were conducting.

In place of HB 312, this spring, the General Assembly's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Committee has hammered out an idiosyncratic and patchwork alternative bill: "Unmanned Aircraft Regulation."

Committee members did not discuss issues of privacy and civil liberties until their very last meeting. Judging from the tenor of the meeting, "Unmanned Aircraft Regulation" is a disappointment to both civil liberties watchdogs and drone manufacturers and proponents.

"Unmanned Aircraft Regulation" allows law enforcement to use drones to conduct surveillance of suspects and citizen "public gatherings" on private or public land with impunity, while requiring citizen drone operators to get written permission of anybody photographed by a drone.

"Unmanned Aircraft Regulation" allows the state government and law enforcement freedom to experiment with drones while limiting citizen innovation. The bill also imposes a misdemeanor sentence on anyone who hunts with a drone. The unsatisfying bill is likely to get a hearing in this GA session—but if its scrapped or doesn't pass, North Carolina could arrive at the July 2015 deadline with no regulation at all—something that would make the industry and lobbyists happy, but could be very dangerous for the rest of us.

Respect for Prayer:
Christians are truly a persecuted minority in our great state. For this reason, family values lobbyists like Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the N.C. Values Coalition, have been pushing two bills to allow Christians, and ostensibly people of other faiths, to be discriminatory in student organizations. and to have greater freedom to pray in schools.

The first bill, originally called "Protect Religious Student Groups," but renamed "Student Organizations/Rights and Recognition" has already been passed in different versions by both chambers.

The bills prohibit universities from denying official recognition and funding to religious university groups that discriminate in their membership, even if the groups violate the school's anti-discrimination policies.

This means universities will continue to have to fund groups that, say, discriminate in their membership based on sexual orientation or gender identity. A provision in the bills requires the groups to still abide by federal and state anti-discrimination laws, just not necessarily school anti-discrimination policies.

The bill came about as a result of an administrator at UNC Chapel Hill threatening to withdraw funding for the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship because of their discriminatory religious doctrine.

The other bill, SB 370, "Respect for Student Prayer," sponsored by Senator Warren Daniel, R-Burke, simply clarifies that students can pray, express religious viewpoints, organize prayer groups and distribute religious literature at school.

Prayer in school in North Carolina is already protected. The bill, with its unclear language, could create confusion for teachers and administrators about how they are supposed to respond to religious expression in the school and classroom.

Last year, Republican lawmakers introduced a failed resolution to make Christianity our official religion in the state, seeking to overturn the separation of church and state so there could be prayer at government meetings. (The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that government entities can permit sectarian prayer before meetings.)

These bills seek the same goal through lesser, more modest means.

Protect NC Right-To-Work:
North Carolina is already a right-to-work state and the least unionized state in the country. Last year, anti-union crusaders Reps. Tim Moffitt, Paul Stam, and Thom Tillis co-sponsored a bill that would permit a referendum to enshrine right-to-work laws in the state constitution.

This year, the same gang could get the General Assembly to hear a bill that would make it an unfair trade practice for any contract to require a contractor or subcontractor to use organized labor. This would further prohibit high-paying union jobs from gaining a foothold in the state.

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