COLUMBIA, SC — South Carolina already has the type of religious-freedom law that Arizona lawmakers passed that critics say could allow businesses to discriminate against gays.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, vetoed the bill Wednesday after political and business leaders urged her to do so, citing fears of tourism and corporate boycotts, and the possibility of losing next year’s Super Bowl if the measure became law.
South Carolina’s 15-year-old law, which few realized was on the books, is like 17 others nationwide and one approved by Congress that protects individuals or businesses’ faith practices from government intrusion, according to the Washington-based American Religious Freedom Program.
South Carolina’s law, for instance, would allow a restaurant – such as Chick-fil-A – that did not want to open on Sundays, based on religious grounds, to get a business license in a city that requires merchants to remain open all week, Gov. Nikki Haley’s office said.
But some states — including Arizona, Ohio and Missouri — have tried to amend their religious-freedom laws to extend the protection that they offer outside of government restrictions. Critics say these proposals could allow businesspeople to cite their religious convictions to refuse to serve gay couples, for example.
South Carolina does not need its current religious-freedom law since other state and federal measures protect faith-based practices, said Victoria Middleton, director for the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina.
The law just creates confusion, she added. “It’s unnecessary.”
Haley, a first-term Republican from Lexington, said Wednesday the Republican-majority Legislature would have to decide if South Carolina needs to repeal or change its 1999 law.
“The things we’re focused on (are) very clear. It’s jobs. It’s education. It’s making sure we’re moving South Carolina forward,” she said. “We don’t spend time (on) which bills we need to repeal.”
Haley’s presumed Democratic opponent for governor in November’s general election, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden, said Wednesday, “I don’t believe that businesses should discriminate against customers or that the government should discriminate against religious beliefs.”
But South Carolina’s current law is not a problem, he added.
“This law has been on the books for more than a decade, is very different from Arizona’s, and we haven’t seen any of the potential problems that the Arizona bill presents,” Sheheen said.
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said it is best to leave the S.C. law as it is. “Any move to repeal it may invite somebody to tag onto that and change it for the worse.”
Even if changes are introduced to amend the S.C. law to make it more like the one that Arizona legislators approved, Rutherford does not expect that effort to go far.
“They see the backlash in Arizona. I certainly don’t think we need that anti-business climate in South Carolina,” he said. “This is the most anti-business bill I have ever seen.”