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By Marti Maguire
RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - A conservative shift by North Carolina's first Republican-led government in more than a century is drawing weekly protests to the state capital of Raleigh, but some lawmakers are defiantly standing their ground.
In the latest of the "Moral Monday" demonstrations, dozens of clergy members, doctors, teachers and environmentalists trampled paper copies of legislation before being handcuffed by police officers when they refused to leave the statehouse as an act of civil disobedience.
Nearly 500 people have been jailed in seven weeks of protests at the state legislature. The 84 people arrested on Monday were all released by early Tuesday, according to organizers.
The protests have gained momentum since spring, when a few dozen people first rallied against the political shift to the right in a state that Barack Obama won in the 2008 presidential election but lost in 2012. The demonstration on Monday drew about 1,000 people.
"They may have the votes, but we have our voices and our bodies," the Reverend William Barber, president of the state NAACP, told the crowd. "We are sowing a seed of resistance that will come up in communities all across this state and nation."
Protesters argue Republican lawmakers are pushing measures that benefit the rich and hurt the vulnerable. Republicans took control of both legislative chambers in North Carolina in 2010 and were buoyed by the election last fall of the state's first Republican governor, Pat McCrory, in 20 years.
The protesters' complaints cover a wide array of issues, including lawmakers' efforts to cut unemployment benefits, require identification to vote and refuse federal money to expand Medicaid under Obama's health care law.
Some lawmakers have been defiant, and at times heated, in their responses to the protests. One state senator referred to the events as "Moron Monday" in a newspaper opinion column.
"The circus came to the State Capitol this week, complete with clowns, a carnival barker and a sideshow," state Senator Thom Goolsby wrote in the Chatham Journal.
McCrory decried the influence of "outsiders" on the group, comparing protesters to the much larger crowds that tried unsuccessfully to oust Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in response to a 2011 law that severely limited public workers' collective bargaining rights in that state.
The recent comments by politicians seemed to galvanize protesters on Monday. Raleigh attorney Mike Sigmon, 34, said he had long been a swing voter and resented being ridiculed for disagreeing with the recent actions taken by the legislature.
"I've always considered myself moderate, and this was a moderate state," said Sigmon, who was arrested. "But in just the last few years this has become a conservative state. I believe in science and reason, and that's not what they're about."
The protests could have a lasting impact, even if they do not sway lawmakers during the waning days of this year's legislative session, said David Meyer, a political science researcher who studies social movements.
"If they inspire other people to join in and do a range of other things, these kinds of protests can make a huge difference," said Meyer, a professor at the University of California at Irvine. "But if it's just occasional street theater, even if it's regularly performed, that's not going to do that."
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Grant McCool)