Under the Dome

Helms, others cautious of religious freedom act’s ‘new rights’

Jesse Helms, shown in 1997, opposed the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act more than two decades ago.
Jesse Helms, shown in 1997, opposed the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act more than two decades ago. SCOTT SHARPE - NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

When the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act was debated in Congress, in 1993, here is what the record shows then-North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms said:

“I believe my credentials are intact regarding my record of support for the religious liberties envisioned by our Founding Fathers. This nation was created by men and women convinced that the right to observe one’s faith, free from the heavy hand of government, is the most cherished of individual freedoms.”

Helms, a Republican, was in his 20th year in office.

“Having said that,” Helms said, “I am obliged to observe that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act purports to strengthen the religious protections afforded by the consititution. In fact, with a name like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, how can anyone vote against it? Unfortunately, around this place you learn quickly that catchy names on bills do not tell what Paul Harvey calls ‘the rest of the story.’”

Helms turned to the merits.

“Mr. President,” he said in the Senate, “the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has less to do with our legal and historical notions of religious liberties than it does with the creation of new rights and employment opportunities for the nation’s lawyers. This legislation when enacted will make it easier for litigants with many different and singular religious beliefs to attack virtually all state and federal laws that somehow burden acts that individuals engage in as part of their religious practice.”

Helms went on.

“Mark my words,” he said. “Once again, the courthouse doors are about to fly open as thousands will demand protection for religious practices as varied as the use of hallucinogenic drugs and animal sacrifice.”

Helms in 1993 was also concerned about prisoners, saying the act would be used to mask “disobedience under the special guise of religious observation.”

He said it could be used by inmates with wide-ranging viewpoints to force prisons to distribute “racist and anti-Semitic publications to the prison population in the name of the free exercise of religion.”

“As a result of a prisoner lawsuit, one state court has even recognized as a religion a group called the Church of the New Song which demands steak and wine for its religious practice every Friday.”

Helms voted no, one of the few in Congress to oppose the act.

His arguments echo today. Advocates have used much the same points in expressing opposition to versions of the act as proposed or passed in the states – some with language giving more leeway for exercise of religion than is in the federal act.

Today, the issue has been viewed in a context of whether business owners or people with sincere religious beliefs against homosexuality can deny services to same-sex couples. The roots of the state actions are in a New Mexico case in which a court decided that a photographer who refused to document a same-sex couple’s commitment ceremony had violated New Mexico’s public accommodations laws, according to the nonpartisan National Constitution Center.

In North Carolina, House Speaker Tim Moore late last week declared that a state version of the act is dead for the session. It followed a private debate among Republicans, who are in charge.

“This bill in its current format, at the current time, is not the proper path to go,” the speaker said.

Moore’s wiggle wording left open the possibility the issue might yet appear in a different form, with some suggesting a state version matching the federal one could advance. The federal act opposed by Helms was authored by Democrats Chuck Schumer of New York and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, and signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

Senate leader Phil Berger was noncommittal.

“Senate Republicans are carefully assessing whether the constitution provides appropriate protections to religious liberty or if additional action is necessary,” Berger said.

Berger said Republicans “remain committed to ensuring freedom of religion – and to preventing discrimination against North Carolinians based on their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Concern from big business

In 1993, Helms didn’t make a business case against the act.

But Theresa Kostrzewa and Lisa Martin, Republican lobbyists who worked with a business alliance to keep the act from passing in North Carolina, said Helms’ words might come in handy if the act reappears. They had been unaware of his views until Dome inquired. Helms’ remarks were made available by the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate.

Kostrzewa said businesses are concerned about more than the broad-brush focus on possible harm to the state’s business climate.

The alliance, Compete North Carolina, had suggested the act was also problematic because it would give employees certain rights that could “expose employers to lawsuits.”

A retailer, for example, could have an employee refuse service to a same-sex couple in violation of corporate policies and that would “put employers in a legal dilemma,” the alliance said in one statement.

Governors and lawmakers who have shelved the act can point as a reason to public concern from big business: Wal-Mart in Arkansas, IBM and Red Hat in North Carolina, American Airlines in Arizona (and N.C.), to name a few.

Hours before Moore’s announcement, Kostrzewa’s reading of the bill’s status was that the House might still move the religious freedom act.

But then the speaker told reporters in a late-day, informal briefing that the bill was off the table. He was asked if business interests had factored in the decision.

“A good bit,” the speaker said.

J. Andrew Curliss

Send tips to dome@newsobserver.com.

Vote cascade cleared way

for Lynch confirmation

A series of votes in the U.S. Senate last week led to the confirmation of North Carolina native Loretta Lynch as the first black female U.S. attorney general. The voting, beginning with amendments on a trafficking bill, broke a deadlock that had held up her confirmation. As expected, Lynch did not win support of North Carolina’s two senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis. Both are Republicans. How it unfolded Wednesday and Thursday:

Trafficking amendment 1

The Senate failed, 56 for and 43 against, to reach 60 votes needed Wednesday to adopt a Democratic-sponsored amendment to a broader trafficking bill that would renew the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act with explicitly stated anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.

Voting no: Burr, Tillis.

Trafficking amendment 2

The Senate then defeated, 45 for and 53 against, a Republican-sponsored measure that would renew the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act without specific language to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.

Voting yes: Burr, Tillis.

Trafficking vote

Voting 99 for and none against, the Senate passed the trafficking bill (S 178) that would strengthen federal laws and other measures to combat human trafficking and help its victims recover. The bill establishes a Domestic Trafficking Victims’ Fund financed by fines on those convicted of trafficking and smuggling crimes.

Voting yes: Burr, Tillis

Lynch confirmed

Voting 56 for and 43 against, the Senate on Thursday confirmed Loretta E. Lynch as the 83rd U.S. attorney general. Lynch, 55, had been the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York since 2010. She was nominated by President Barack Obama on Nov. 14, 2014. A yes vote supported Lynch as attorney general.

Voting no: Burr, Tillis

What they said

Tillis: “I voted against her confirmation today because of her support for the president’s unconstitutional executive amnesty plan and her unwillingness to make a firm commitment to reverse the partisan politicization that presently exists at the Department of Justice... I ultimately hope that she will prove my concerns unfounded by working to restore the Department’s reputation for legal integrity that is separated from politics.”

Burr: “I did not have confidence that Ms. Lynch would ensure the independence of the attorney general’s office and had concerns about her support for the president’s executive amnesty.”

N&O staff and wires

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