North Carolina’s Proposed Religious Freedom Law Protects Fundamental Freedoms

(REUTERS/Chris Keane)

Doug Wardlow Legal Counsel, Alliance Defending Freedom
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North Carolina would do well to pass a religious freedom law similar to laws in numerous other states and the federal government.

Legislators introduced the Tar Heel State’s proposed Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the North Carolina House of Representatives (HB 348) and Senate (SB 550) earlier this year. The ongoing discussion about religious freedom in North Carolina shows that the legislature continues to consider RFRA and other bills designed to protect religious liberty.

Like its counterparts in other states, North Carolina’s proposed law requires that the government demonstrate a compelling need before it burdens someone’s exercise of religion. It doesn’t give people of faith a blanket license to violate the law on account of their religious convictions. It simply sets up a test for courts to use when striking a balance between a person’s religious liberty and the state’s need to operate the government.

When state action collides with religious freedom, the need for the state to act has to be balanced against the importance of the liberty interest at stake. This doesn’t mean that religious liberty always wins. It just means that religious freedom gets a fair hearing and prevents the government from overriding our most prized freedoms unless it demonstrates that it has a compelling reason to do so and that it has no other way of accomplishing its objectives.

Americans have long valued the freedom to live according to the dictates of one’s religious and moral convictions. Indeed, the freedom to hold particular views about the world and to express them in words and conduct — though others may disagree or even take offense — is foundational to all other freedoms. The freedom to believe and express beliefs opens the door for civil discourse, allows democratic government to function, and respects the inherent dignity and autonomy of every human person.

Private citizens may disagree about fundamental issues. The problem arises when one side can call in the coercive power of government to shut down their opponents. Government then becomes the enemy of liberty. That is what North Carolina’s RFRA would prevent.

And the threat to religious liberty is not merely hypothetical. Examples of government actions that undermine Americans’ religious freedom abound.

For example, numerous artists — cake artists, floral artists, and photographers — involved in the wedding industry throughout the country have been sued for abiding by their religious convictions and referring customers elsewhere when they have been asked to help celebrate a same-sex ceremony. Some of them have even been sued in their personal capacity, which means the government or a group like the ACLU can take everything they own — their life savings, their home, and their business. According to a March 13 Marist poll, the vast majority of Americans oppose this type of government coercion. But without protection like that provided by North Carolina’s proposed RFRA, the same thing could happen in North Carolina, and the person sued would not have a religious freedom law to rely upon as a defense.

In Olympia, Washington, the state pharmacy board enacted a rule requiring pharmacies to stock and deliver life-ending drugs — no exceptions. Though dozens of pharmacies in the area willingly carry those abortion pills, the state has sought to compel pharmacies like the Stormans family’s grocery store to provide drugs that conflict with their deeply held religious conviction that all human life deserves protection.

Some object that we should protect only the freedom to hold religious beliefs and engage in worship in the confines of a church or synagogue or other religious setting, not the freedom to act on religious convictions in public life.

But that sounds disturbingly similar to a common refrain that Chinese law enforcement officials use to berate religious and political dissidents who, in the midst of often violent interrogations, appeal to the Chinese constitution’s guarantee of religious liberty. The Chinese constitution, the interrogators respond, only gives you the right to believe in your faith, not to speak or act publicly on your beliefs.

Of course, America is not where China is on this issue, but that’s precisely why we shouldn’t toy with the same dangerous rhetoric. Religious liberty means nothing if the government can punish you for expressing your beliefs in word or conduct.

America is not unique because we value the freedom to believe. America is exceptional because we value the freedom of every individual to live out their beliefs. North Carolina’s proposed RFRA protects the right of every North Carolinian to do exactly that.

Doug Wardlow is legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, which has advised state legislators across the country, including in North Carolina, on religious freedom laws and is also defending the religious freedom of many clients in court.