As the Supreme Court stands poised to issue one of the most important rulings for the gay rights movement -- a decision that could legalize marriage equality in all 50 states -- the opposing “religious freedom” movement is starting to score some major victories as well.
On Thursday, measures that could make it easier to discriminate against the LGBT community on religious grounds became law in two red states: Michigan and North Carolina.
The bills were hardly the first proposals seen as blatant attempts to roll back recent strides for LGBT equality; in the last couple of years, dozens of so-called “religious freedom” measures have surfaced in red states across the country, coinciding with the wildfire-like spread of same-sex marriage.
But the bills were the first to swiftly become law without much of a fight. Aided by partisan maneuvering and, perhaps, a growing complacency among the opposition, “religious freedom” may have just turned a corner.
The measure that became law in North Carolina Thursday is easily one of the most aggressive “religious freedom” proposals seen yet. Known as Senate Bill 2, the legislation will allow magistrates and registers of deeds to recuse themselves from performing their marriage duties if doing so violates their “sincerely held” religious beliefs. Lawmakers in North Carolina’s GOP-controlled House of Representatives voted 69-41 to override a veto issued last month by the state’s Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, clearing the final hurdle for the bill to become law.
Criticized by some as more sweeping than a controversial “religious freedom” law which became the subject of widespread condemnation in Indiana earlier this year, SB2’s successful passage demonstrates what can happen when the opposition simply doesn’t show up. Ten lawmakers were absent for Thursday’s override vote, including four Republicans who voted against the bill the first time it cleared North Carolina’s House. According to the group Equality North Carolina, Thursday marked the first time any of those Republicans had been absent this legislative session.
Because the state requires support from three-fifths of the voting members present in order to override the governor’s veto, those absences brought the number of “aye” votes needed down from 72 to 66. The bill ended up getting three more votes than necessary.
Business opposition was also sorely lacking in the leadup to SB2’s passage, especially in comparison to the backlash that followed -- and ultimately crippled -- religious freedom legislation in Arizona, Arkansas, and Indiana. While those states earned condemnation from massive players in the tech, sports, and retail industries (to name a few,) the top three companies headquartered in North Carolina — Bank of America, BB&T and Belk — didn’t come out against SB2 ahead of its passage, according to The Washington Blade, nor did the North Carolina Chamber.
SB2 was also helped considerably by shrewd leadership among North Carolina’s Republican House caucus. Originally scheduled for an override vote on June 3, the bill was pushed back for days until GOP leaders felt confident they had the ⅗ support necessary for the override. To top it off, Republican lawmakers used a legislative procedure Thursday to prevent debate on the House floor, giving only three minutes for the House Democratic leader to voice his opposition.
“As I've mentioned to everyone, we would proceed on the bill when we felt like we had the votes,” Republican House Speaker Tim Moore told the News & Observer Thursday. “There were some who voted for the bill the first time and there were some absent, and there were some absent who had voted against the bill. So it's probably a mixed bag.”
Hours after SB2 became law in North Carolina, meanwhile, Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed a package of bills that will allow faith-based adoption groups to refuse to work with prospective parents if doing so violates those groups’ religious beliefs. As in North Carolina, Republican leaders in Michigan pulled off some impressive legislative tactics. According to the Detroit Free Press, Michigan’s bill was placed on the GOP-dominated state Senate's agenda at the last minute, with no notice on Wednesday. The House of Representatives, also Republican-controlled, quickly concurred the Senate’s passage.
So far, the outcry over the Michigan legislation has been softer than that seen in Arizona, Arkansas, or Indiana. That could all change, however, in the coming days. After all, the backlash in Indiana reached a fever pitch only after the state’s religious freedom measure was signed into law.