Attorneys are challenging a proposed policy revision by the North Carolina Bar Association that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
At least 30 attorneys, who are part of the Alliance Defense Fund, sent comments to the association expressing opposition.
"Christian attorneys shouldn't be penalized for abiding by their beliefs," said ADF Senior Counsel Joseph P. Infranco. "If the revision is approved, North Carolina attorneys could be forced to choose between advocating legal positions that are contrary to their sincerely held religious beliefs or risk facing professional sanctions from the state grievance committee."
The association is the state agency responsible for regulating the practice of law in North Carolina. The new proposal it is considering is an amendment to the Rules of Professional Conduct.
It states: "While employed or engaged in a professional capacity, a lawyer should not discriminate on the basis of a person's race, gender, national origin, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity. This responsibility of non-discrimination does not prohibit a lawyer's advocacy on any issue."
A similar proposal was made last year but amid strong opposition, the Ethics Committee voted to withdraw the recommended changes. Among the opponents was the American Civil Liberties Union, which contended that it would violate attorneys' personal or religious beliefs.
Adding "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to the list of protected classes jeopardizes First Amendment rights and religious liberties, North Carolina attorney Bryce D. Neier said in a recent letter to the bar association.
Noting that the free exercise of religion is perhaps the most revered of all the constitutional protections in the First Amendment, Neier stated, "Many religious individuals adhere to certain moral precepts regarding sexual behavior. And religiously motivated attorneys are constitutionally entitled to refrain from offering their services under particular circumstances."
"Yet, although these attorneys are constitutionally entitled to conduct themselves in accordance with their religious convictions, their actions might be characterized as 'sexual orientation' discrimination under the proposed provision, and ethical charges might be brought against them," he argued. "This threat to the religious liberties of attorneys should compel the State Bar Association to reject the proposed provision."
The amendment will be considered for adoption during the North Carolina State Bar Association's next quarterly meeting, which is scheduled for July 20-23. If adopted, the rule amendments are submitted to the North Carolina Supreme Court for approval. Amendments become effective upon approval by the court.
"Lawyers," Neier argued, "should be free to practice law in accordance with their conscience without interference from new rules put in place by a small group of activists."