SC Dems Want Changes To State's Religious Freedom Laws | Tim Smith

The Story

Democratic lawmakers are proposing protections to prevent discrimination against gays in South Carolina in the wake of controversies in other states over their religious freedom laws.

South Carolina passed its own religious freedom law in 1999 and there have been no complaints, Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin told The Greenville News.

But Democrats said Wednesday they want to be sure the state's law would not allow businesses to discriminate based on sexual orientation.

Sen. Brad Hutto, an Orangeburg Democrat, filed a bill Wednesday that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in five areas of South Carolina law: the sale and rental of homes, admission into hospice or home care and employment.

He said there is an exception in his bill for churches who might want to hire only those of their own faith.

"For housing, for accommodations, for checking into a hospice or home care, it is not fair to think anybody in South Carolina would be discriminated against for any reason whatsoever," he said. "As we continue to recruit these world-class businesses to South Carolina, it's time for this state to stand up and say it is the policy for this state that we don't discriminate, period."

Rep. Todd Rutherford, leader of House Democrats, said he would be filing similar legislation.

"South Carolina is quickly becoming one of the best states in the nation in which to do business," he said. "This bill will ensure that South Carolina businesses are open to everyone — no matter their race, gender or sexual orientation. This would send a signal to businesses and consumers from all over the world that South Carolina truly has one of the most inclusive and welcoming business environment in the entire country."

South Carolina's religious freedom law, like other states', prohibits government action that would "substantially burden" the exercise of religion by a person, business or organization without a compelling state interest. The law and similar laws in almost 20 states are based on a federal religious freedom law passed in 1993.

Victoria Middleton, executive director of the South Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she is not aware of any complaints with the South Carolina law.

"Fortunately, I can say we have not heard the South Carolina law being used to discriminate against people based upon their sexual orientation or other things and we certainly would oppose that," she said.

Indiana's religious freedom law has drawn controversy because of critics' contentions that it would permit businesses to discriminate against gays for religious reasons. Some companies or organizations have suspended travel or business plans in the state or have voiced concerns about the law.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed his state's law last week, then asked lawmakers to address the issue of whether it might allow discrimination.

Martin said he does not believe South Carolina's law could be used to discriminate against any group based on sexual orientation.

"That was certainly not the intent," he said. "I don't know of a religion that permits that kind of discrimination. And you would have to demonstrate your religious beliefs supported that kind of discrimination."

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