As opposition to a new Religious Freedom Restoration Act appeared to grow, N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore Tuesday signaled that lawmakers will take a hard look at its potential fallout.
Moore called an unusual, impromptu news conference in his office to say the House will be deliberate as it considers the bill.
He said while the bill is important to a number of House Republicans, the session’s primary goals are job creation and improving roads and education. He said he wants to find out how the religious freedom legislation accomplishes those objectives and what it does to improve North Carolina’s “brand.”
“I think we need to show that if we approve this bill, that it will improve North Carolina’s brand,” he said. “Anything we do, we have to make sure we don’t harm our brand.”
A bill was introduced in the House by two Charlotte Republicans, Reps. Jacqueline Schaffer and Dan Bishop, and in the Senate by a handful of GOP senators.
On Tuesday, the Arkansas House passed a similar measure. It’s one of 16 states that have introduced legislation this year creating or altering a state religious freedom law. Currently, 20 states have religious freedom laws.
The legislation’s supporters say it will protect people as they exercise the religious liberty guaranteed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Critics say it will give legal cover to businesses and individuals who discriminate against gays and lesbians.
Moore alluded to the current backlash in Indiana after GOP Gov. Mike Pence signed a similar bill into law.
Major industries, including Eli Lilly and Co., have urged Indiana officials to change the law so it can’t be used to justify discrimination. The head of the NCAA, scheduled to hold its Final Four this weekend in Indianapolis, said the law “strikes at the core values of what higher education in America is all about.”
Moore noted that Indiana is feeling repercussions from passage of its religious freedom law. He’s met with business leaders, and North Carolina’s bill has come up.
Meanwhile, a coalition of N.C. business groups is forming to fight the religious freedom bills.
Compete North Carolina describes itself as “a coalition of like-minded businesses united against discrimination and the harmful effect it has on our economy.”
Lobbyist Theresa Kostrzewa handed out fliers touting Republican opposition to similar bills in other states. It said the bills could expose employers to litigation from employees who claim their religious beliefs allow them to violate labor laws or corporate nondiscrimination policies.
Critics of the N.C. proposals include Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. On Monday, McCrory told a Charlotte radio talk show audience that the bill “makes no sense.”
“What is the problem they’re trying to solve?” he said on WFAE-FM. “I haven’t seen it at this point in time.”
Supporters of the legislation say it’s no different than a federal religious freedom measure passed by congressional Democrats in 1993 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
Chris Kromm of the liberal Institute for Southern Studies said the language of the proposed N.C. law would make it easier for people to claim a law or policy violates their religious beliefs.
GOP Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville said the N.C. proposal differs from the federal law in another respect.
“The difference is how it’s intended to be applied,” Jeter said. “And while some people may not like it, society grows over time. I think this (proposal) is specific to the homosexual issues, the same-sex issues, the gender issues.”
Jeter said existing laws already protect religious freedom.
Moore said though some members wanted a committee meeting on the bill this week, “That’s not going to happen.”
“This is worthy of discussion,” he said. “It’s going to take some time.”