RFRA Again Rears its Ugly Head

The first “religious freedom” bill this year in Georgia has arrived at the legislature. This bill, SB 233, is brief, proposing to apply the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993 to the state of Georgia. This law prohibits the government from interfering with a person’s exercise of religion even if the interference would apply equally to all citizens.

The federal RFRA has a mixed history: Prisoners have had their rights to religious practices protected under this act, while native tribes have been less successful in leveraging its protections for land rights and peyote use. Most recently, it was instrumental in the Burwell v Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision that allowed employers to deny employees contraceptive healthcare coverage, under the guise of religious objections.

Currently, there are 21 states who have passed RFRA legislation. State-level laws are less ambiguous, consistently using “religious freedom” as a fig leaf covering the real intent of these laws: legalizing intolerance and denying rights (particularly marriage) to LGBTQ citizens. Indiana, whose former governor is now vice president, is archetypical of the legalized intolerance feared to follow these laws: RFRAs codify discrimination against LGBTQ citizens with regards to employment, housing and public accommodations.

Criticism against state-level RFRA laws comes not just from citizens and activist organizations, but businesses: to sign a RFRA into law is to court economic catastrophe. Indiana’s RFRA prompted a corporate boycott with repercussions estimated at $60 million lost. This economic hit led to amendment of the act, rolling back the most egregious effects. Corporate interests aligning with the public good in pressuring vetoes or rollbacks of RFRA laws has played out similarly in several states; Walmart in Arkansas, MLB and the NFL in Arizona, Delta and Coca-Cola here in Georgia. Even former governor Pat McCrory of North Carolina, whose disastrous HB2 attacked transgender rights and likewise led to millions of tax dollars lost, has admitted that religious freedom laws “make no sense.”

Religious freedom bills are not new to Georgia, and have become something of an annual tradition. In 2015, RFRA came as HB 218, HB 29 and SB 129. The past legislative session saw two RFRA-like bills in the state legislature. The First Amendment Defense Act of Georgia (SB 284) was designed to specifically protect citizens who denied marriage equality. The Pastor Protection Act (HB 757) in the same session was originally written by the House to protect religious officials and institutions from repercussions if they chose to deny marriage equality to citizens, but was altered in passage through the Senate, which ultimately led to its defeat by the governor’s pen.

Governor Nathan Deal understands the threat such a law poses to Georgia’s economic success, if not the rights of citizens. In 2016, with the GA legislature finally passing HB 757, he vetoed it, citing the overly broad changes incurred in passage through the Senate and admitting that does not “think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia.” Governor Deal ended his veto statement for HB 757 with a message of inclusion:

“My decision regarding HB 757 is not just about protecting the faith-based community or providing a business friendly climate for job growth in Georgia. This is about the character of our state and the character of its people.

We are working to make life better for our families and our communities. That is the character of Georgia. I intend to do my part to keep it that way.”

If he remains committed to preserving this character, he will again oppose this attack on LGBTQ Georgians if another such bill crosses his desk.

Alex Blacutt
February 24, 2017

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