North Carolina Legislative Building. Photo Credit: Dave Crosby, via Flickr. Licensed CC.

Update (Jan. 28, 2015, 1:29 p.m.) — Today’s legislative briefing by the North Carolina Values Coalition is being postponed and rescheduled, according to a spokesperson who also confirmed the group will seek to introduce broader anti-LGBT legislation above and beyond a bill introduced by Senate leader Phil Berger today.

“Today’s briefing on religious freedom has been postponed and will be rescheduled,” Jessica Wood, communications director for the coalition, said in an emailed statement. “An overwhelmingly positive response to our invitation has put in doubt whether the facility can accommodate the crowd.”

Wood added: “We look forward to facilitating and furthering the discussion about how our state’s leaders can best protect the religious freedoms of all North Carolinians once legislation that will accomplish that task has been introduced.”

RALEIGH, N.C. — The North Carolina General Assembly returns to the state capitol today to begin work in their new session. Along with it, a state Senate leader has introduced legislation exempting public officials from performing same-gender marriages as other lawmakers prepare to attend a closed-door legislative briefing hosted by an anti-LGBT advocacy group on a proposed “religious freedom” bill that could open widespread discrimination against LGBT citizens.

The North Carolina Values Coalition, which led the push for the state’s now-overturned anti-LGBT marriage amendment, will host their briefing today at 4 p.m. at the North Carolina Museum of History. The coalition is headed by Tami Fitzgerald, a lobbyist who has formerly worked with hate groups like the Family Research Council.

Rep. Paul Stam, the Republican House speaker pro tempore, is expected to attend the meeting. He announced the briefing on the legislature’s official opening on Jan. 14.

Also expected to attend is Rep. Jacqueline Michelle Schaffer, a Republican who represents portions of southern Mecklenburg County.

Requests for comment from Stam, Schaffer and the NC Values Coalition haven’t yet been returned.

First anti-gay bill of session introduced

The briefing comes as Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger introduced today a bill exempting magistrates and registers of deeds from issuing marriage licenses to or performing marriages for same-gender couples if doing so  “would violate their core religious beliefs.” Berger had promised the bill last fall, following the overturn of the state’s marriage amendment.

The bill doesn’t specifically mention same-gender couples, instead stating that magistrates and registers of deeds have “the right to recuse from issuing all lawful marriage licenses…based upon any sincerely held religious objection.”

Berger’s bill requires the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts to provide magistrates or registers of deeds in counties where all such employees might object to serving particular members of the public.

The bill also requires the recusing officials to stop performing marriages altogether — if they object to one, they can’t perform any.

But even with its seemingly even-handed approach, the bill could prove problematic for same-gender couples — and others, including interracial couples, couples with previously married partners and others. In small counties with few magistrates or registers of deeds, couples could be made to wait for marriages or licenses or be forced to travel to another county.

LGBT equality advocates in the state are condemning Berger’s proposal.

“With this discriminatory bill, and the possibility of others promised in the coming days, North Carolina’s leaders have officially launched their efforts to dress up anti-LGBT discrimination by calling it ‘religious freedom,’ Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality North Carolina, said in a statement on Wednesday.

Sgro added: “While the bill does not expressly mention the LGBT community and its same-sex couples, we’ve seen this cynical tactic play out in many parts of the country in many different ways. Now these leaders are bringing this divisive debate to our state where North Carolina’s true values of fairness and equality are under attack.”

Discriminatory effects could go further

Berger’s bill, if amended later in the legislative process, or another bill separately introduced by Stam or another lawmaker could go much further than Berger’s current narrowly tailored bill.

Sgro and Equality NC said Wednesday they do anticipate another, more broad bill.

Stam has intimated as much, telling the Raleigh News & Observer yesterday that his bill will be “something like” a similar federal bill, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which, the Raleigh paper reports, “says government must establish a ‘compelling interest’ in order to limit someone’s religious practice.”

Advocates are also unhappy with Wednesday’s planned closed-door briefing. They say it’s concerning that details on any possibly discriminatory legislation are so sparse.

“We are concerned that we cannot seem to ascertain what the proposed legislation will look like that will come up around religious exemption,” Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality North Carolina, told the News & Observer.

Sgro said the potential bill could go so far as to allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT people. Equality North Carolina is already advocating against the bill, urging Gov. Pat McCrory to veto anything passed by the legislature and holding a press conference this morning at the state legislature with Sen. Jeff Jackson (D-Mecklenburg) and other lawmakers.

“Government offices that are open to the public must be open to everyone, including gays and lesbians,” said Jackson.

Another legislator in attendance, freshman Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram (D-Bertie, Chowan, Edgecombe, Hertford, Martin, Northampton, Tyrrell, Washington), also questioned the intent of the bill.

“I am an ardent defender of religious freedom, but this is not about religious freedom,” said Smith-Ingram, an ordained minister

Equality NC has already started pushing against the bill, inviting their supporters to call and email legislators telling them to stop the “license to discriminate” bills.

“We want to make sure we protect not only the LGBT community, but also North Carolina’s reputation as a place welcoming to all,” said Sgro.

Similar bills under consideration elsewhere

Similar bills, sometimes known as religious freedom “protection” or “restoration” acts, have been introduced in other states. In Virginia, legislators are considering legislation giving broad exemptions to government employees. reports that under Virginia’s bill “a person would not be required to ‘perform, assist, consent to, or participate in any action’ as a condition of ‘obtaining or renewing a government-issued license, registration, or certificate’ if such actions would ‘violate the religious or moral convictions of such person.’”

In addition to Virginia’s and North Carolina’s potential laws, the American Civil Liberties Union this week noted four other similar pieces of legislation. Bills in South Carolina and Texas would restrict the use of taxpayer money, including government employees’ salaries, in granting marriage licenses to same-gender couples. Other bills are under consideration in Utah and Georgia.

The bills have come in response to continued court rulings opening legal marriage to LGBT couples. In North Carolina, federal courts ruled in October to overturn the state’s anti-LGBT marriage amendment. Those rulings, and several resignations of anti-LGBT magistrates across the state, prompted Berger’s comments in the fall.

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.