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RALEIGH – Support for protecting citizens from unwarranted government surveillance and moving toward more compassionate medical marijuana laws may be rising in the North Carolina General Assembly, according to an annual legislative report card released today by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina (ACLU-NC). The report card shows how members of the North Carolina House and Senate voted on legislation introduced during the 2014 session concerning five key civil liberties issues: privacy rights, protections for government whistleblowers, religious liberty, racial and juvenile justice, and compassionate drug policy.

Of particular note, 18 Senate Republicans voted against H.B. 348, which would have dramatically expanded the use of automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) on state-owned roads and highways without including crucial safeguards to protect people’s privacy from unwarranted government surveillance. The ACLU-NC has been working with lawmakers from both parties to pass substantive privacy protections concerning law enforcement’s use of ALPRs and other surveillance technology that is currently unregulated in North Carolina. 

“North Carolinians who support civil liberties should be cautiously optimistic about the growing numbers of lawmakers who support protecting people’s privacy from unwarranted government surveillance,” said ACLU-NC Policy Director Sarah Preston. “The near unanimous support for providing patients suffering from epileptic seizures with safe access to a marijuana-based oil is also very encouraging, and we continue to urge lawmakers to extend their compassion to other North Carolinians who are suffering and could benefit from a comprehensive medical marijuana law. However, support for many other key civil liberties, particularly religious liberty for students of minority beliefs, was sorely lacking in both political parties this session.”

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WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled in favor of closely held corporations that sought an exemption to a federal law requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for contraception. The owners of the plaintiff companies – Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based craft supply store chain, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania furniture company – cited religious objections to contraception as a reason not to comply with the law.

The American Civil Liberties Union, religious organizations, other civil rights and women’s health groups, business leaders, and members of Congress filed friend-of-the-court briefs arguing that the companies’ owners cannot impose their personal religious beliefs on employees to withhold coverage for health services with which they disagree.

"This is a deeply troubling decision. For the first time, the highest court in the country has said that business owners can use their religious beliefs to deny their employees a benefit that they are guaranteed by law," said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU. "Religious freedom is a fundamental right, but that freedom does not include the right to impose beliefs on others. In its ruling today, the Court simply got it wrong."

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RALEIGH – The North Carolina House of Representatives today passed S.B. 370, “Respect for Student Prayer/Religious Liberty,” which purports to clarify the rights of public school students to freely engage in religious activities and the proper role of school personnel during such expression. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina opposes the bill because existing law already protects the right of religious expression for students and S.B. 370 could create confusion and serve to ostracize students of different beliefs.

“The right of students to voluntarily express and practice their faith in public schools is already well-established and protected by the First Amendment,” said Sarah Preston, ACLU-NC Policy Director. “Some of this bill’s unnecessary and confusing language could wrongly encourage public school personnel to takes sides in student-led religious activity, making students with different beliefs feel excluded or ostracized not only by their classmates, but also by their teachers and schools.” 

The bill has already passed the state Senate but was modified by the House and now must return to the Senate for concurrence before being sent to Gov. Pat McCrory for his signature.

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RALEIGH – In a 5-4 decision today, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a New York town’s practice of starting town meetings with official sectarian prayer. The practice was challenged by residents of Greece, N.Y. who objected to hearing government prayers, the vast majority of which were expressly Christian invocations, as a condition of attending public meetings.

“We strongly disagree with today's 5-4 decision,” said Jennifer Rudinger, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina. “Today’s ruling is a disappointing setback for the rights of citizens of all beliefs to be treated equally by their government. Opening government meetings with prayers from a specific religious viewpoint tells citizens with different beliefs that they are not welcome and sends a message that the government endorses certain religious views over others. While we disagree with today's ruling, it is a fact-specific decision making plain there are still limits on the types of prayers that legislative bodies may permit.”

The ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation filed a federal lawsuit in 2013 on behalf of three Rowan County citizens, demanding that the Rowan County Board of Commissioners stop its practice of opening government meetings with prayers that are specific to one religion. More than 97 percent of board meetings since 2007 had been opened by commissioners who delivered prayers specific to one religion, Christianity. On July 23, 2013, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina issued a preliminary injunction ordering the Rowan County Board of Commissioners to immediately cease its practice of opening government meetings with prayers specific to one religion.

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