A Case For State Religious Freedom Laws Mississippi and North Carolina passed bills that have drawn controversy this week. Matt Sharp, of the Alliance Defending Freedom, backs both policies and explains why.

A Case For State Religious Freedom Laws

A Case For State Religious Freedom Laws

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/473702960/473702961" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Mississippi and North Carolina passed bills that have drawn controversy this week. Matt Sharp, of the Alliance Defending Freedom, backs both policies and explains why.


BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Mister, I ain't a boy. No, I'm a man. And I believe in a promised land.


And that is, of course, the legendary Bruce Springsteen who was supposed to hold a concert in Greensboro, N.C., tonight. But late last week, he sent out a statement saying he's canceling that show because of a new law in North Carolina that he and other critics say is discriminatory. The law requires people to use bathrooms that correlate to the gender listed on their birth certificates.

A whole string of corporations and city governments around the country have raised their collective voice against this law. The same thing has happened over a new law in Mississippi designed to protect the religious beliefs of people who do not support same-sex marriage. To talk more about both these laws - the law in North Carolina and one in Mississippi - we brought in Matt Sharp. He's an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is an organization that backs religious freedom laws. Welcome to the program.

MATT SHARP: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Let's start with the law in North Carolina that's garnered so much criticism. Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, actually said Thursday that there was no need for a similar bill in her state. Can you explain what has been happening in North Carolina that you believe made this bill necessary?

SHARP: The primary motivation was the city of Charlotte passing an ordinance that would have allowed, in all businesses and public schools and other facilities, men to use the same restrooms as girls and women. That's violating their right to privacy. And so the North Carolina legislature and governor, seeing this and the impact this was going to have, took steps to reverse this and to make sure that across the state no individual would ever have to give up their right to privacy and be forced to share the same facilities as someone of the opposite sex.

MARTIN: And I'm sorry to get into things that are so intimate, but it's an intimate law about very private issues. When you're going into a woman's bathroom, everywhere around the world, you go into stalls. So there is no exposure to anyone's biological anatomy.

SHARP: Well, I don't think that's necessarily the case because this also applies to locker rooms, changing areas and things like that where individuals are in a state of undress. They deserve to have their privacy protected.

MARTIN: Let's turn to the law in Mississippi, if we could. This law was passed to essentially protect the rights of people, of individuals, of business owners, who do not support LGBT people, to prevent them from having to serve a customer who might be gay. Is that a correct characterization?

SHARP: Not at all. This law was passed in response to the Supreme Court's Obergefell decision creating this right to same-sex marriage. So what this is is a targeted response to make sure that these vulnerable religious minorities and those who hold traditional views of marriage are not compelled by the government to do something that violates their belief. This in no way is meant to allow the LGBT community to be denied goods and services. It simply does not cover that at all and would not allow that.

MARTIN: So can you walk me through a specific case?

SHARP: Absolutely. So we represent Barronelle Stutzman. She's in Washington state. And she had one customer that, for 10 years, had served, Rob Ingersoll. She loved Rob. She knew he was gay and didn't care and was glad to serve him. But when Rob asked Barronelle to do a custom arrangement and to design and set up the flowers for his same-sex wedding ceremony, Barronelle politely declined and said, Rob, you know, I love you, but this would violate my beliefs. Because of that, she was targeted by the state. She was filed a lawsuit against her by Rob. All of her business assets are now at risk simply because she declined to do one specific ceremony.

MARTIN: There are people who would say that same-sex marriage is a sin and that their religious convictions make it impossible for them to provide any service that would appear to be sanctioning that sin. But, I mean, religious people would say that every kind of customer who walks into their business carries sin to some degree.

SHARP: It's not a matter of serving someone that they may disagree with their views. It's a matter of these individuals, these small business owners, these organizations being forced to be participants in a ceremony that violates their belief.

MARTIN: But does the Mississippi law extend beyond this particular circumstance?

SHARP: It's primarily in terms of sort of cakes and flower arrangements and whatnot. It is targeted towards wedding-related goods and services. Now, there are some other circumstances that are covered and a great example is government employees.

So we also represent Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran here in Atlanta that was fired because on his own free time, he wrote a personal devotional book for a men's Bible study expressing his views about marriage and sexuality, among other host of topics. And he was fired for that. And so this Mississippi law would also ensure that government employees can't be fired for their expression of their personal believes on their own free time, as was the case with Fire Chief Cochran.

MARTIN: If I could ask you kind of a big picture political question because for the last several election cycles, gay rights has been part of the debate, and it's not in the same way this year in the 2016 presidential election. And mainly that's because the Supreme Court has ruled that same-sex marriage is legal. How does that affect you and the work you're doing? I mean, do you, as a conservative, as someone who is supporting this kind of legislation to protect religious freedoms, do you wish that candidates were talking about these social issues more?

SHARP: I think what they're talking about reflects what's going on in our country right now and that a lot of people are recognizing that in terms of the gay rights movement, they've accomplished a lot of what they sought to do with the Obergefell decision and whatnot. I think what this legislation and why we're seeing a lot of it right now is we are seeing the fallout and the repercussions of those gay rights decisions.

And I think we have seen some of the candidates touch on some of these issues of religious liberty and the balance that we're trying to strike and make sure that an important group of people that just want to live out their faith are not being trampled on by government entities and by groups that want to compel them to do something that violates their faith.

MARTIN: Matt Sharp with the Alliance Defending Freedoms speaking to us from Atlanta, Ga. Matt, thanks so much for taking the time.

SHARP: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.