LGBT anxiety up as Georgia Senate Republicans file ‘religious freedom’ bill

Despite assurances from state Republican leaders that so-called “religious freedom” bills weren’t on the agenda for the 2017 session, Sen. Marty Harbin (R-Tyrone) put forth a piece of such legislation late yesterday.

Harbin’s bill, Senate Bill 233, aims 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.”

“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,” Congressional scholar and law professor Anthony Kreis told Georgia Voice. “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.”

RFRA legislation, the shorthand abbreviation for these “religious freedom” bills, have been challenged by many in the LGBT and ally communities as licenses to discriminate on religious grounds. Kreis said the purpose of this particular bill is to ensure that state law mimics federal law, which was a criticism of past “religious freedom” bills introduced at the state level.

“It’s re-igniting the same-old argument, the same-old tired debate. At the end of the day there’s only going to be one way, one solution to break the impasse, and that is to have stakeholders from across the spectrum in Georgia to sit down and craft a comprehensive non-discrimination law,” Kreis said. “Until you get that kind of debate, RFRA is not going to do anything on its own to help end the debate, the discussion. It’s simply another attempt to follow the path of North Carolina, Arizona and other states, which I think is unwise.”

“There’s a fundamental disconnect about what RFRA was meant to do, which was to protect vulnerable religious minorities, and what people are trying to do with it in 2015, 2016, 2017,” Kreis said. “It’s been turned on its head and that’s a problem. RFRA was never meant to do the things that recently people have wanted it to do.”

If RFRA legislation was used as intended, the Amish, for example, may be able to use it to avoid certain state traffic regulations.

“Amish folks have their horse and buggy, and state law says you have to have a bright orange reflective triangle on the back of any horse-drawn vehicle. [The law] is not born out of some desire to harm the Amish. Everyone is required to do it,” Kreis said. “The Amish object to it from religious grounds because it’s bright, it’s fluorescent, it doesn’t fit within their worldview. They offer to have reflective tape and use red candles so they can functionally get the same safety value by crafting this kind of unique reflector, but it doesn’t offset their religious views.”

Under current Georgia law, the Amish would not be able to use their different reflective devices. But under a RFRA law, because the state can’t show that its interests in traffic safety are harmed by the Amish reflectors, the state would lose.

“That’s a very different situation than what we saw in Michigan a few months ago when a trans employee of a funeral home was fired. That violates Title 7 … but [the courts] gave them a free pass because the court applied RFRA and said the religious rights trump the civil rights of the trans employee, and that just can’t be,” Kreis said. “You can’t give exceptions to people when it harms a non-consenting third party.”

Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, said though freedom of religion is a First Amendment right, it “does not give any of us the right to harm others.”

“Growing up during Jim Crow, I lived in a world where I was refused service in hotels and shops because of my color. People claimed a religious purpose then, saying that God meant for the races to be separate. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now, to use religious belief to harm and discriminate against others,” she said in a statement. “No one should be turned away from a business, refused government services or evicted from their home just because of who they are.”

Young said ACLU of Georgia opposes SB 233, and will continue to advocate for comprehensive civil rights legislation in the Peach State. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the bill had been signed by about half of the state Senate’s Republican lawmakers.

Kreis said the comprehensive Georgia Civil Rights Act, Senate Bill 119, is a “phenomenal move in the right direction.” Sen. Lester Jackson (D-Savannah) proposed that bill earlier this month, and a civil rights discussion panel about it was held just hours after Harbin’s bill dropped.

“What we’re talking about is trying to create loopholes for nondiscrimination protections that don’t even exist,” said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, during the panel talk. “It really opens up a Pandora’s box, and because Georgia does not have any comprehensive civil rights law, in my mind it tilts the scales automatically in favor of people that claim a specific religious exemption. And there’s no balance under the law to it, and that’s what scares me the most.”

SB 233 was co-sponsored by senators Jesse Stone (R-Waynesboro), William Ligon Jr. (R-Brunswick), Steve Gooch (R-Dahlonega), Chuck Payne (R-Dalton) and Michael Wiliiams (R-Cumming).

Kreis referenced last year’s proposed Pastor Protection Act — which was the original ideation of HB 757, Georgia’s vetoed “religious freedom” bill — as one way the rights of both LGBT individuals and the faith community could be protected simultaneously. He also said the speech House Speaker David Ralston gave at the start of the 2017 session, which referenced Georgia’s LGBT individuals, was a great step.

“Frankly, I think the olive branch, if you want to call it that, has been extended in a sincere way by the LGBT community for a number of years, but no one with political power and clout to make that deal happen have taken actionable steps to make that a reality,” Kreis said.