Moderated by Rick Badie
A bill that supporters say would have expanded protections under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was denied a floor vote during the 2014 General Assembly. That decision, notes a conservative activist, has given proponents of the so-called religious liberty bill more resolve to explain its purpose to the public. Our other guest writer calls the idea for such a law discriminatory and unnecessary because religious liberty isn’t under attack in Georgia.
No threat to religious liberty
By James Graham
When Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act 20 years ago, supporters intended the bill to be a shield for religion, not a sword to harm others. But today, people are using it to take away protections, rights and benefits of others.
If we are going to pass a religious freedom bill in Georgia, we must make sure it is not used to trump non-discrimination laws or deny women basic medical services, such as access to FDA-approved birth control pills and devices.
Our General Assembly has had 20 years to enact a version of the act. Until the most recent legislative session, we had not seen a bill introduced. There is no specific or timely concern threatening religious liberty in Georgia.
When it comes to a critical issue that has implications for so many people in so many ways, why not take a breath and make sure we fully understand the consequences of our actions before we rush a bill through the Legislature?
Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, which the Supreme Court will decide in June, will clarify boundaries of the federal religious act. In this case, the plaintiff is arguing the law applies to for-profit corporations, another outcome supporters of the act did not contemplate.
If the plaintiff succeeds, the concept of religious liberties would also apply to for-profit corporations, allowing business owners to claim to be exempt from general laws that apply to business, including non-discrimination and health and safety laws. One of the primary components of the Georgia bills would have introduced this concept into state law.
The restoration act was never intended to allow for discrimination, but people attempt to use it for such purposes. Religious liberty is a core American value. So is non-discrimination. We should not allow a Georgia law to be used for such purposes.
While current state and federal law already allow employers and businesses to discriminate against gay and transgender individuals without penalty, there are a growing number of municipalities, such as Atlanta, that have passed local ordinances prohibiting these actions. The introduction of religious liberty bills is a preemptive strike that would prevent the enforcement of these non-discrimination provisions as they become widespread.
Despite claims to the contrary, gay and transgender people face discrimination on an ongoing basis. In a 2011 statewide survey, 45 percent of respondents said they had experienced some form of workplace discrimination; 48 percent had experienced discrimination in a public establishment.
Georgia corporations and business groups have publicly opposed these bills because of their divisive and discriminatory impact. Their agenda is simple: Keep Georgia focused on business. They know diversity is good for business.
More than 200 businesses and 45 municipalities in Georgia have policies prohibiting employment discrimination for their own employees. Isn’t it time the state of Georgia did the same?
Jeff Graham is executive director of Georgia Equality.
Religious liberty defines freedom in U.S.
By Julianne Thompson
Last week marked a very important event in our country’s history, as the Hobby Lobby vs. Kathleen Sebelius case was heard before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Christian-owned private company is opposed to abortion and is fighting for its right to not be forced to provide abortifacients as part of its health care plan.
Religious freedom and conviction is protected by the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, bipartisan legislation passed almost unanimously by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. It protects people from government action being taken against them for exercising their right to not participate in an act that violates their beliefs.
In this year’s session of the Georgia Legislature, Senate Bill 377 would have been a statewide mirror of the same law that provides protection in 31 other states including Illinois, where it was supported by then-Sen. Barack Obama. Unfortunately, the legislation was objected to by corporate lobbyists from Coke, UPS and Delta; the Metro Atlanta Chamber also lobbied against it. The bill was denied a floor vote.
This bill is not discriminatory. There has never been a single case where the outcome calls this truth into question. It is also not a guarantee that a plaintiff will be legally successful. This is not the Arizona bill vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer. The religious freedom legislation is already the law in Arizona and has been for years.
This bill is about freedom. A rabbi should not be forced to hold gentile services in a synagogue. A Halal butcher should not be forced to serve pork. A Catholic physician should not be forced to provide abortions. A company like Hobby Lobby should not be forced to violate its beliefs because of a government mandate. Our rights come from God and nature and are protected by our founding documents.
What we look for in our leaders is integrity, strength and dedication to the nation’s principles. Georgia Republicans hold a super-majority in the Senate and are one vote away from a super-majority in the House. Yet when it came to protecting one of the reasons this nation was formed, they caved to pressure from corporate lobbyists and the left and were too scared to allow a vote of conscience. Simply unacceptable.
On March 19, activists and citizens involved in politics for the first time rallied gathered for a rally at the Capitol in support of this legislation. Speakers included Bishop Wellington Boone; Dr. Don Hattaway, president of the Georgia Baptist Convention; Dr. Vanessa Battle and Bishop Garland Hunt. We have vowed to remain vigilant. The rally was a launching point for a statewide campaign to educate voters. It will include a statewide bus tour, rallies across Georgia, a statewide summit this summer, a march to the Capitol and other events.
Our resolve is set in concrete.
Julianne Thompson is co-chair of the Atlanta Tea Party.