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NC lawmakers seek to make religious beliefs a legal defense

The two bills, both titled the N.C. Religious Freedom Restoration Act, were filed last week and would allow any person or organization to cite religious beliefs as a legal defense in court. William Marshall, a UNC law professor, said the bill’s language is very broad.

“It could mean that a company owned by a Baptist could refuse on religious grounds to serve a Methodist,” he said.

Frank Pray, chairman of the UNC College Republicans, said he thinks the bill’s language needs refining but believes that the proposals protect important religious liberties.

“It is a step in the correct direction of ensuring your own property rights, your religious freedom, while also not having the government discriminate against any individuals,” Pray said.

Similar religious freedom laws are already in place in 19 states, he added.

“If you really own your own property, you have the right to use it and to let others use it as you wish,” he said.

Even if a business chose to use the religious belief defense to engage in discriminatory practices, Pray said, studies have shown that these businesses tend to suffer.

Marshall said Indiana has already felt the economic impact of its new law, which was signed on Thursday — Angie’s List, a popular online search site, said it was delaying a planned $40 million expansion in the state.

He said the bills remind him of practices decades ago when businesses refused to serve people on the basis of race.

“Past civil rights laws said that if you enter into an enterprise, part of what your obligation is is to serve the general public,” he said, adding that he’s not sure why the N.C. legislature is considering these measures now.

“Gov. (Jan) Brewer, a conservative Republican, vetoed a similar bill in Arizona a few years ago because senators like John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Republican senators, didn’t think it would be particularly helpful,” he said. “I’m wondering, given that background, why people are pushing this now.”

Pray said he doesn’t think there have been any documented cases in North Carolina of people refusing to serve others based on religion — but it is better to be proactive.

Other states have seen situations where bakers who objected to same-sex marriage have had to bake a cake for a gay wedding ceremony, Pray said.

“That baker, they are a strong Christian, and they don’t think that actually is marriage,” Pray said. “They themselves are morally opposed to baking a cake for them because in their own minds that would sort of be sponsoring it.”

Jenna Marvin, a UNC senior and former president of the UNC Secular Student Alliance, said in an email that she was disappointed in state legislators for proposing the bill, but she wasn’t surprised.

“This bill has the potential to hurt the North Carolina LGTBQ community, as well as minorities, in the name of religious freedom,” she said.

“It’s inexcusable to deny people services simply because of their race, sexual identity, socioeconomic status or religion.”

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