Johnston County religious leaders and economic boosters are questioning the implications of, and motivations behind, a religious-freedom act filed in Raleigh.
The bill has swept North Carolina into the national storm swirling around similar legislation passed in Indiana and Arkansas. Critics say the laws extend legal protections to business and individuals who discriminate against gays and lesbians. Supporters say the laws simply shore up the rights already guaranteed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Currently, 20 states have a religious-freedom law on the books, and 16 more are considering legislation this year. In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law. Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal law did not apply to the states.
The Rev. Jim Melnyk of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Smithfield said North Carolina does not need the law. In his opinion, Melnyk said, the Constitution already provides more than adequate protection for religious expression.
“I believe (the bill) is poorly and vaguely written,” he said. “Intended or unintended, it opens the door to all sorts of questions and concerns about discrimination.”
Melnyk said he agreed with Gov. Pat McCrory, who has has taken a stance against his fellow Republicans who introduced the bill. In an interview last week with WFAE-FM in Charlotte, McCrory said the law made “no sense” and he could not identify a problem that it would solve.
At Smithfield’s First Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Joe Hester said he shared McCrory’s sentiments, and he also worries the state bill would enable discrimination.
“I still think there are a lot of questions that come with this legislation,” he said.
The Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, blames opposition to the religious-freedom act on misinformation. Rather than legalizing discrimination, Creech said, the law would set minimum standards for denying people and companies the right to exercise a religion. If passed, he said, the state would need to have a “compelling government interest” before restricting religious practices, and it could do so only using the “least restrictive means” possible.
“It puts religion on one side of the scale in court cases, and then government’s interest on the other side of the scale,” he said. The government “can’t outweigh an individual’s right to practice their religion as they see fit.”
Creech lives in Kenly and was pastor of Parish Memorial Baptist Church near Pine Level in the late-1990s. He said liberals have made religious-freedom laws into a bogeyman. What concerns him, he Creech said, is seeing Republicans, such as McCrory, and religious leaders start bending to the pressure.
“If religious folks are not willing to stand up for their own freedoms, they shouldn't be surprised when they don’t have them any more,” he said.
Rather than religious freedom, the Rev. Terence Leathers of Mt. Vernon Christian Church in Clayton said the real issues at hand are civil and human rights. American society needs to include people who might be different, he said, because everyone is entitled to a seat at the table and to the freedom to be themselves.
“It’s a slippery slope when you start discriminating against individuals,” Leathers said. “We have to have an inclusive society that respects individuals regardless of their sexual preferences.”
The Rev. Lee Colbert of Smithfield’s First Baptist Church said he had not been following the issue and declined to comment.
For those who make a living marketing Johnston County to outsiders, the job is easier when more people feel welcome in the Tar Heel State.
Companies pay attention to legislation with social implications, said Chris Johnson, Johnston County’s director of economic development. When it comes time to build a new factory or company headquarters, Johnson said, businesses look for states whose laws match their own corporate policies, which tend to be inclusive.
“Based on what people have told me, (the religious-freedom act) would make our area a tougher sale,” he said. “Colleagues that recruit for the state talk about how important it is for North Carolina to have a strong brand that’s welcoming to everybody.”
Making people feel welcome in the area is also a top priority of the Johnston County Visitors Bureau, marketing manager Ashby Brame said.
“We want as many tourist to experience Johnston County as possible, regardless of who they are,” she said.