Facing opposition from business leaders and fellow Republicans, N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore announced Thursday that the House will not take up controversial “religious freedom” legislation, effectively killing it for this session.
“For this session, the bill is not going to move,” Moore said during a hastily called news conference. “This bill in its current format, at the current time, is not the proper path to go.”
The decision followed growing concern about the proposed Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bill similar to those that sparked loud backlash this year in Indiana and Arkansas.
It came a day after the bill apparently divided House Republicans, who discussed it in a private caucus meeting. The measure had drawn opposition from businesses, including IBM and American Airlines. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory had also expressed reservations.
Supporters said the measure would guarantee people’s ability to exercise religious liberties. Critics said it would allow discrimination against homosexuals and same-sex couples.
In an email to Mecklenburg lawmakers Thursday, Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan said the chamber’s executive committee was against the bill, sponsored by Charlotte Republican Reps. Jacqueline Schaffer and Dan Bishop.
“We oppose passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to the extent it would enable discrimination against individuals in our state,” the chamber’s statement said. “We believe that it would be harmful in the effort to recruit new jobs and investment. It would also be harmful to existing employers in the recruitment of talent to North Carolina.”
Asked how important such business opposition was to his decision, Moore, who is in his first term as speaker, said “a good bit.”
“We want to do everything we can when it comes to economic development to make sure we’re standing head and shoulders above the other states around us,” the Kings Mountain Republican said. “When you have business leaders from around the state coming in and saying, ‘We’ve got concerns,’ we’ve got to be mindful.”
Earlier, Democrats had criticized Republicans for “doubling-down” on social issues at the expense of economic development and jobs measures. Their news conference came shortly before House Republicans passed a bill extending the waiting period for abortions from 24 to 72 hours.
The religious freedom bill has an identical version in the Senate that hasn’t had a hearing. Shortly after Moore’s announcement, Senate leader Phil Berger issued a statement that didn’t directly mention the bill.
He highlighted text from the state’s constitution that says all people have the right to worship “according to the dictates of their own consciences.”
The religious freedom bills more specifically address the exercise of religion, with language that says “state action shall not burden a person’s right to exercise of religion...”
“Senate Republicans are carefully assessing whether the constitution provides appropriate protections to religious liberty or if additional action is necessary,” Berger said. “Senate Republicans remain committed to ensuring freedom of religion – and to preventing discrimination against North Carolinians based on their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
One Wake County Republican said Thursday that he believed the bill could cost him and others their seats at the next election.
Rep. Gary Pendleton, a former chairman of the Wake County commissioners, said he withdrew as a co-sponsor at the request of 21 of his campaign contributors.
“This bill will cause at least four members to be defeated,” Pendleton said in an interview. “Including me.”
Moore acknowledged that some Republicans were worried.
“There are some folks who worried about that,” the speaker said. “I could go back and defend that in my district and not be concerned. There are other folks who are worried that in their districts, it would be difficult. … We’re a political body, and that’s just the reality of it.”
Moore’s decision appeared to catch some of the bill’s supporters off guard.
Rep. Paul Stam, one of the main proponents of the legislation and the House speaker pro tem, said he had been unaware of the decision to drop the bill when reached about an hour after Moore’s announcement.
“The caucus made no such decision,” he said. “I hadn’t heard that. I don’t comment on things I haven’t heard about.”
Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Warsaw Republican who co-sponsored the bill, said he was “disappointed” in the decision but thought the bill got a fair hearing in the GOP caucus.
“I think we had ample opportunity to express our opinion, and many of us did so with passion and enthusiasm,” he said. “The speaker indicated to a lot of us that he would do the will of the caucus, and I believe that the caucus was properly polled.”
Dixon said the controversies in Indiana and Arkansas caused the bill’s intent to get “distorted” and viewed as discriminatory.
“The religious freedom act that we were proposing would have put us perfectly in line with the Constitution,” he said.
Meanwhile, LGBT leaders applauded the speaker’s decision.
“This decision is a testament to the actions of thousands of North Carolinians – from business leaders to faith communities to a majority of North Carolina voters – who made their voices heard over the past several months,” said Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality NC. “While we celebrate this victory for equality, we remain focused on continuing to fight a law that would allow public officials to discriminate against same-sex couples…”
But Moore appeared to keep the door open to a different type of religious freedom bill.
“Most of the sponsors recognize the political reality (and) the sensitivity of the bill and are fine with the bill being delayed or maybe dealt with in the short session or looked at as far as a study,” he said.
“At the end of the day, there’s a recognition that North Carolina has a very good brand. North Carolina has a great brand, and we’ve worked this session to focus on job development, job retention and economic issues. We’re going to continue to focus on those issues.”
Moore said the House still plans to vote on Senate Bill 2, which exempts magistrates from performing marriage ceremonies if they have a religious objection. That bill, which has already passed the Senate, has also raised concerns about discrimination against same-sex couples.
Moore says the magistrates bill likely won’t get a vote until May. “The overwhelming majority supports that bill, and it’s my intention that we take it up,” he said.
With that battle looming, Equality NC sent out a message to supporters to redouble their efforts against the bill.
Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of North Carolina Values Coalition, said her group is very disappointed in Moore’s decision.
“We continue to believe that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is important to preserving religious freedoms for everyone, and we will continue to work hard because 90 percent of all North Carolinians agree that religious freedom deserves protection,” she said in a statement. “We are encouraged that the Senate is committed to preserving religious freedom and by their boldness to stand up for the citizens of North Carolina. ”