Playing Politics with Religious Freedom

The foundation of these various provisions is the same: the imposition of religious beliefs on others.

Reproductive justice is a hot button issue, and while important in its own right, sometimes it overshadows other important religious liberty concerns that also exist in a state bill. This happened recently in both North Carolina and Ohio.

There’s been a lot of focus on North Carolina House Bill 695. The controversy began when the Republican-led Senate unexpectedly offered a substitute bill that added anti-abortion provisions onto an otherwise unrelated anti-Sharia bill. Unfortunately, the focus on reproductive rights in the media and in the hearings, while clearly important, caused many to overlook the original harmful anti-Muslim content that remains in the bill.

In addition to limiting access to essential health care, the HB 695 would prohibit the application of foreign laws in North Carolina courts. This would cause problems not just for those in the Muslim community, but also for those of other faiths who need the court’s administration in legal matters inherently rooted in religious bodies of law, including matters of divorce, alimony, and custody disputes. The prohibition on foreign laws could also complicate the state’s proceedings with other foreign countries. The bill is especially unnecessary because courts already have the power to override foreign laws when they conflict with North Carolina and U.S. laws. The true motivation behind this bill is a manufactured and Islamophobic fear that Sharia Law is taking over the U.S. legal system, a claim for which no evidence exists.

Fortunately, Governor McCrory is also feeling apprehensive about HB 695. In a July 10 press release, McCrory announced he will veto the bill unless significant changes and clarifications are made. The bill is currently awaiting amendments in the House Select Committee on Ways and Means.

The controversy over HB 695 has forced North Carolina into an extended session in order to pass its budget. The budget bill has been sitting in conference committee, which conducts its negotiations behind closed doors and out of the public eye. The budget also includes an important church-state issue:  It contains a $50 million private school voucher proposal. This program would funnel public money to private and religious schools. Not only have voucher programs proven to be ineffective, but they also often lack accountability and civil rights protections. If you live in North Carolina, please contact your State Senators and Representatives and tell them to oppose private school vouchers in the North Carolina budget.

In a similar strategy, Ohio snuck limits to reproductive health care into its biennial budget, HB 59. The budget was in the final negotiations in conference committee when legislators added a last minute provision reducing Planned Parenthood funding and creating unnecessary ultrasound requirements. Not only was it a harmful addition to the bill, but it also distracted many from the provision in the budget that expands Ohio’s school voucher scheme program statewide. Governor Kasich signed this budget bill into law on June 30th.

The foundation of these various provisions is the same: the imposition of religious beliefs on others. Whether it enforces one’s belief of the “definition of life” on women, disparages those of a minority faith, or forces taxpayers to fund religious schools and education, each of these policies is constitutionally suspect and threatens religious liberty. Moreover, these drastic changes to state legislation increasingly seem to occur last minute and behind closed doors, when the public cannot fully react. These examples from North Carolina and Ohio prove that when politicians refuse to play by the rules we all lose.