Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, LGBT activists weigh in on Senate Republicans’ ‘religious freedom’ bill

Senate Bill 233, a “religious freedom” bill filed late yesterday by Sen. Marty Harbin (R-Tyrone), has local LGBT leaders up in arms and Gov. Nathan Deal wary.

Deal told the AJC this morning that the state needed to be “extremely cautious” about the bill.

“We have benefitted from the actions I took last year, and we’re still continuing to see states who have gone in other directions suffer the consequences — namely North Carolina,” he said.

Last year, Deal vetoed House Bill 757, also a “religious freedom” bill. That bill aimed to protect faith-based organizations from having to rent or allow their facilities to be used for events they found “objectionable,” and they would not have to provide any services “that violate such faith-based organization’s sincerely held religious belief.” In addition, HB 757 allowed faith-based groups to discriminate against potential employees whose religious beliefs or lack thereof “are not in accord” with those of the group.

Harbin’s bill, however, seeks to amend Title 50 of the Official Code of Georgia “so as to provide for the preservation of religious freedom.” SB 233 is barely a page long, and reads “The provisions of 42 U.S.C. Chapter 21B as such existed on Jan. 1, 2017, regarding government burdens on the free exercise of religion, shall in like manner apply to this state or any political subdivision thereof.”

Congressional scholar and law professor Anthony Kreis told Georgia Voice the purpose of this particular RFRA — the shorthand version of “religious freedom” — bill is to ensure that state law mimics federal law, which was a criticism of past such bills introduced at the state level.

“Sen. [Josh] McKoon and some other individuals pushed the idea last year of just basically copy and pasting federal RFRA or somehow incorporating it by reference, which is what this bill is today,” Kreis said. “It’s a very strange thing to do, to incorporate federal law into state law by reference … But that of course doesn’t really speak to the heart of what most people don’t particularly like about RFRA.”

According to the AJC, bills like SB 233 came about after a 1997 Supreme Court decision, which found that part of a federal RFRA law didn’t apply to states. When the federal bill became law, it was something Deal, then a Congressman, voted for. He told the AJC that was one reason he feels it necessary to give Harbin’s bill “due consideration.”

“There is something certainly worth looking at. But there have been so many negative connotations with what have gone on in other states … It sounds simple on its face, but sometimes things that appear simple don’t work out that way,” Deal said. “I’m willing to meet with the author of the legislation and delve into what it does and doesn’t do. And I’ll keep an open mind until I have a chance to do that.”

LGBT activists are also wary about SB 233 and its potential implications. At a Tuesday night panel discussing the proposed Georgia Civil Rights Act, Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said SB 233 “tilts the scales automatically in favor of people that claim a specific religious exemption.”

“What we’re talking about is trying to create loopholes for nondiscrimination protections that don’t even exist,” he said. “There’s no balance under the law to it, and that’s what scares me the most.”