The folly of 'religious freedom' to ignore the law in NC

The following editorial appeared in the Charlotte Observer:

Just how far should religious freedom go in North Carolina? Should a state employee be able to ignore the law, citing his religious beliefs? Where would that end?

One of the first orders of business when the Republican-led legislature convenes today will be what Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam and others call a “religious freedom” bill. Others rightly call it a discrimination bill.

Yes, state tax collections are hundreds of millions of dollars behind budget. Yes, teacher pay is still far too low. Yes, Gov. Pat McCrory says legislators’ focus should be on jobs and economic development.

Forget all that. On the session’s first real day, Stam and others plan to hold a briefing about letting magistrates and registers of deeds deny same-sex couples marriage licenses and ceremonies – even though gay marriage is now legal in North Carolina. This pandering not only belittles fellow N.C. citizens, it wastes time and taxpayer money. With the Supreme Court likely to end the gay-marriage debate this summer, it is the last gasp in a dwindling fight.

Details of what Stam proposes are not clear. He referred the Observer editorial board’s calls to Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer, R-Mecklenburg. Schaffer did not return the board’s calls Monday.

The bill is likely to build on suggestions last fall from Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, who wants state employees to be able to cite religious exemptions in not serving gay couples. Houses of worship have more leeway here, but state employees are hired to carry out state law.

It sounds similar to the legislation that brought national scorn on Arizona last year – even threatening to move next week’s Super Bowl from the state – before Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed it. It sounds almost identical to a bill that died in the Republican Kansas Senate last year.

Those states and others killed or slowed their legislation in part because the business community knew it was bad for business. We would hope North Carolina’s business leaders would be as enlightened.

Stam’s proposal, cloaked in language about religious freedom, is aimed squarely at same-sex couples. Would he be OK with other religious exemptions? Should teachers be able to refuse to lead the Pledge of Allegiance because of their religious beliefs against swearing any oaths? Should state troopers be able to refuse to direct client traffic outside a clinic surrounded by anti-abortion protesters? What about government doctors who have religious beliefs preventing blood transfusions? What about magistrates who oppose interracial marriage?

Republicans in several other states have seen the folly of such legislation, and they should here as well. It’s morally wrong, it’s bad for business, it’s a distraction from other issues and it’s a legal dead end.

Tribune Content Agency