State Politics

Legislators invited to closed meeting on ‘religious freedom’ with NC Values Coalition

The N.C. Values Coalition has invited state legislators to attend a briefing on “religious freedom” Wednesday afternoon as the General Assembly returns.

The group’s executive director, Tami Fitzgerald, declined to provide further specifics on the topic of the meeting, scheduled for 4 p.m. at the N.C. Museum of History. She said the talk will be open to legislators only – reporters and the public won’t be allowed inside.

“It’s just about religious freedom in general,” she said. The group describes itself as an advocate of “pro-family” values, and says it is working to ensure that private business owners have the right to refuse service to customers on the basis of their religious faith.

Republican Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam of Apex will be among the legislators expected to attend, and he highlighted the event in his opening day speech on the House floor.

“In 2015, when the Little Sisters of the Poor, a charitable order of nuns, is threatened with massive fines by the federal government, we need a restoration of religious freedom,” he said. “When we next reconvene on Jan. 28 there will be a legislative briefing on that subject, open to all.”

The nuns Stam mentioned are the subject of a federal court case. Little Sisters of the Poor are seeking a religious exemption to the federal health care law that requires them to provide employees with contraception.

Reached Tuesday afternoon, Stam said Republicans plan to introduce a bill this session related to the religious freedom issue. He says it will be “something like” the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which says government must establish a “compelling interest” in order to limit someone’s religious practice.

Stam didn’t provide further specifics, noting that no bill has been introduced yet. Senate leader Phil Berger said last fall that he plans legislation that would allow magistrates and registers of deeds to refuse to participate in same-sex marriages if it goes against their religious beliefs.

Chris Sgro, director of Equality NC, said Republicans’ vagueness is troubling. His group advocates for equality for people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

“We are concerned that we cannot seem to ascertain what the proposed legislation will look like that will come up around religious exemption,” Sgro said, adding that he fears lawmakers might allow businesses to turn away gay couples based on their religious views. The group is already circulating a petition seeking to pressure Gov. Pat McCrory to veto any legislation that would “allow government officials to use their personal beliefs to discriminate.”

Sgro criticized legislators who plan to attend the Values Coalition meeting. “It certainly seems out of touch with the state ... that in the very opening days of the session, Stam and others are gathering to have a conversation that’s not at all focused on jobs,” he said.

Sgro and his allies aren’t waiting to see the bill before they start lobbying against it. Equality NC has scheduled a news conference Wednesday morning with three Democratic legislators: state Sens. Jeff Jackson and Terry Van Duyn, and House member Grier Martin.