The Strange Path of House Bill 695
The inflammatory N.C. House Bill 695, subject of the late-night voodoo in the N.C. Senate on July 2, was first introduced in the North Carolina General Assembly on April 9 of this year. At the time it carried the short title of "Foreign Laws/Protect Constitutional Rights," because it was ostensibly designed to ensure that the United States Constitution and the laws of North Carolina would be safe from the application of "foreign law."
More specifically, this odd little bill proclaimed that it would be the "public policy of this state to protect its citizens from the application of foreign law that would result in the violation of a legal or constitutional right of a natural person."
We might choose to quibble over just what constitutes a "natural person," but that would just be for fun. It would seem that there is, after all, a distinction between a "natural person" and, say, a corporation when headed to the state's civil or criminal court.
The bill has since been labeled in the public as the Sharia law bill, even though it never mentions that word. Sharia, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, is an alternate spelling for Shariah, which it explains is "the fundamental religious concept of Islam, namely its law, systematized during the 2nd and 3rd centuries of the Muslim era (8th-9th centuries).
There seems to be an unspoken agreement that Sharia law itself was precisely the target of the original bill, and the internet and other research will provide generous references to the fires of fear that are being stoked around this country concerning the threat to Western ideals posed by this religious code. It makes for scary reading, especially if you parse the paranoia.
And so it was that primary sponsors Chris Whitmire, who hails from Rosman, along with George Cleveland (Jacksonville), Jacqueline Schaffer (Charlotte) and Larry Pittman (Concord) set forth to declare the law of the land -- this land, the United States of American along with the state of North Carolina -- to be the law of the land. It is a great and wonderful thing when legislators can take the obvious and confuse it so.
But let us give a bit more credit for this creative thinking. Co-sponsors of this bill include Western North Carolina's own Michele Presnell (Burnsville), who earlier in the year brought to North Carolina some fierce attention to this state as a co-sponsor of H.B. Joint Resolution 494 -- the Rowan County Defense of Religion Act. That nifty little resolution declared that, among other things, the "North Carolina General Assembly asserts that the Constitution of the United States of America does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion." In an email exchange with a constituent obtained by The News & Observer in Raleigh, Presnell was asked whether she was "comfortable with a public prayer to Allah before a legislative meeting in Raleigh," referring to Islamic prayer. Her answer, as reported by the paper, was "No, I do not condone terrorism."
So here we have Presnell, 14 other co-sponsors and the four primary sponsors (all of whom are Republican), proposing a bill that will banish foreign laws from consideration in the courts of North Carolina, which operate under North Carolina and U.S. law. Their proposal garnered enough votes to pass, 69 to 42, on May 16 in the House and move to the Senate for consideration. There it was referred to the Committee on Rules and Operations on May 20. It was withdrawn there and re-referred to the Committee on Judiciary 1 on June 25.
Then on July 2, a substitute bill appeared without public warning, changing the short title of the bill to Family, Faith, and Freedom Protection Act. It retained the admonishments that the law of the land must be the law of the land, and then added three pages of abortion-related legislation, including limits on abortion funding under certain health plans (including those of local governments), outlawing "sex-selective" abortions, requiring the physical presence of a physician during an entire surgical abortion procedure, and changing the rules pertaining to clinics certified by the Department of Health and Human Services to an equivalency of those required of ambulatory surgical centers.
Portions of the abortion amendments in the bill had appeared separately in other legislation introduced this session, such as H.B. 716 (sex-selective abortion), which passed in the House on May 7 and had been placed in the Rules and Operations committee of the Senate; HB 730 (modifying health insurance laws including those of local governments, and adding health-care conscience protection), passed May 16 and referred to the Senate's Committee on Insurance on May 20; and S.B. 308 (amending the Woman's Right to Know Act to require the constant physical presence of the attending physician during an abortion procedure "until the patient leaves the premises"). It was introduced on March 14 and referred to Rules and Operations with no further action, thus never passing the Senate before crossover. There appears to be no earlier bill requiring clinics that perform abortions to meet the state standards of ambulatory surgical centers -- something that would evidently rule out all but one of the clinics currently providing abortion services to women across that state. Thus the two most onerous of the amendments were never subject to full consideration in the light of day.
And so it came to pass that on Tuesday night, July 2, these collected provisions were tacked on with a rough stitch to the anti-Sharia law legislation that was anticipated to be discussed, adding North Carolina to a number of other states whose zeal to restrict women's rights to their own decisions has overflowed in a strange way that does not serve the general public well.
The hybrid bill carries two messages, though the first has practically been drowned out by the second. First, it is a vehicle obviously fueled by a fear of and prejudice against Islamic culture and the people who follow its religion, codifying an unnecessary prohibition against religious law. Second, it was a handily available bill to which to attach still more prejudice by framing such onerous restrictions on -- now get this part -- the law of the land, that women in this state will now find that a medically legal procedure that should be privately controlled by a patient in consultation with her preferred medical advisor will now have the very rough hands of any number of North Carolina legislators weighing heavily on her as she seeks to be in charge of her own life.
The irony is almost unbearable. If this bill passes, the results surely will be.
Nelda Holder is a freelance writer and editor in Western North Carolina. She is a former associate editor of the Mountain Xpress in Asheville.