N.C. primed for mega tech backlash over Indiana-like bill

Members of the state's General Assembly are pushing for a religious freedom law similar to the one in Indiana

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory
Chris Keane/Reuters

North Carolina is considering "religious objection" legislation similar to Indiana, a move that could raise the stakes for the tech industry firms battling these laws.

North Carolina is a major technology center and home to one of the leading research areas in the United States. The Research Triangle Park just west of Raleigh is a massive center for research and development in IT, bio-technology and pharmaceutical, among other areas, with more than 200 companies employing more than 50,000 people in just that area.

The state has a strong educational system with a tech focus. Notably, North Carolina State University was first in the nation to create a master's program for advanced analytics, and the college is getting more than 1,000 applications for its next class of 120.

But there is an effort in the state's General Assembly to adopt a religious objection law that's "very similar" to the one in Indiana, and potentially worse, said Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality NC, a state LGBT advocacy organization. (Here's the text of the bill).

What concerns critics of the legislation is that it enables businesses to deny service to someone and cite religious grounds for doing so. Tech firms say discriminatory laws, aside from being morally objectionable, will hurt hiring.

Percent of workforce with math and science jobs by Congressional District. Click map to see additional data. Source: Esri 2014 Updated Demographics; Dun & Bradstreet, Inc.

The legislative push in North Carolina is still very early and may not advance. Sgro said there was no hearing on the bill today, "so we have some hope because of that, but at the same time we remain vigilant.

"There is a small but vocal minority of members of the General Assembly who are really going to push this, even though I don't think even mainstream Republican members want this at this point," said Sgro.

N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore said today that state legislators would likely go slow on the bill, given the firestorm that has engulfed Indiana. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory on Monday also expressed reservations about the bill.

Arkansas lawmakers have sent a similar religious freedom bill to Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson for his signature, but he has not signed it and is now seeking changes.

On Tuesday, Walmart, which is headquartered in Arkansas, urged Hutchinson to veto that bill because it "threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold." On Wednesday, the retail giant commended Hutchinson for reconsidering the law.

The backlash in Indiana from tech firms such as Salesforce, which has a major presence in that state, along with Angie's List, as well as many of Indiana's major employers, exploded after Gov. Mike Pence signed the religious objection bill into law last week.

North Carolina tech by the numbers

Percent workforce in computer & math jobs 2.4
Number of workers in computer & math jobs 104,887
Number of information systems businesses 10,000
Employees in infosystems businesses 75,219
Source: Esri 2014 Updated Demographics; Dun & Bradstreet, Inc

If tech firms continue with their advocacy, North Carolina could engender a response from an even broader segment of the tech industry. There's a long list of tech companies with operations in the state, including IBM and Red Hat, which employs about 7,100 people worldwide and is based in Raleigh.

The investment in data centers, thanks to the state's low energy costs and good electric grid, has been in the billions of dollars.

Apple built a 500,000 square-foot, $1 billion dollar data center in Maiden N.C. and recently filed plans to add offices to it, reported the Hickory Daily Record. Google has spent some $1.2 billion on North Carolina data centers since 2007 in Lenoir, N.C.

And Facebook has built a 300,000-square-foot data center in Forest City, N.C., costing about $450 million.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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