‘Religious freedom’ bills: Anti-gay landmine or much ado about nothing?

Alex Wan was sitting in his office at City Hall shortly before the Thanksgiving break when an employee from the city’s fire department asked to speak to him.

The employee handed Wan a paperback book. Pictured on the cover was an androgynous figure leaning against a large red question mark. The title was, “Who Told You That You Were Naked?” Several inflammatory passages, including some comparing gay people to child molesters, were marked with Post-it notes. The employee said the books had been distributed to fire department employees by the author, then-Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran.

Wan, fearing legal action against the city by fire department employees due to the book’s content, took it to the city’s Human Relations Commissioner, and within days, Mayor Kasim Reed suspended Cochran. The mayor later fired him for publishing the book without official permission and noting his confidence in Cochran was eroded for his bad judgment for, among other things, speaking out publicly during his suspension despite being asked not to.

Hundreds of supporters of former fire chief Kelvin Cochran gathered at a rally at the Capitol. (photo by Patrick Saunders)
Hundreds of supporters of former fire chief Kelvin Cochran gathered at a rally at the Capitol. (Photo by Patrick Saunders)

Although Wan said he had a pleasant professional relationship with Cochran and there was no indication of homophobia, as a gay man Wan was not surprised to learn of the former fire chief’s anti-gay views. But the hate mail, the angry phone calls that he’s received—those were not expected.

“I think with the lightning speed of our equality, I let some of my guard down,” he says. “These are jolts, reminders like this that we still have a long way to go.”

Cochran’s new role is as the face of so-called “religious freedom” bills being presented in the Georgia state legislature. This was made crystal clear at a recent rally at the state capitol where religious leaders decried Cochran’s firing and called on the audience, which numbered in the hundreds, to support such bills.

Opponents of such bills say they are a direct reaction to the “lightning speed,” as Wan put it, of advancing LGBT equality in recent years, highlighted by the fall of same-sex marriage bans across the country. Proponents of the bills deny a link between the two, saying the bills are simply a response to a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Either way, with similar bills being introduced in Michigan, Texas, North Carolina and Utah along with Georgia this year, a national dialogue has broken out. “Religious freedom” bills: anti-LGBT landmine or much ado about nothing?

Allowing businesses to discriminate against LGBTs?

In 1993, a bill introduced by a Democratic congressman was passed unanimously by a U.S. House with a Democratic majority, and near unanimously by a U.S. Senate with a Democratic majority, and signed into law by a Democratic president. It was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), passed in order to prevent laws that infringe on a person’s free exercise of religion.

However, in 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in City of Boerne v. Flores that Congress had exceeded its Fourteenth Amendment enforcement powers by enacting the federal RFRA, and that the law doesn’t apply to states and local municipalities.

Since then, 19 states have enacted RFRAs of their own without much controversy—until last year. As more and more same-sex marriage bans fell across the country, broader versions of the federal RFRA appeared, setting off alarm bells within the LGBT community over concerns that the bills would allow, for example, business owners to refuse service to LGBT people based on their religious beliefs. Supporters of the bills claim they aren’t discriminatory against the LGBT community.

State Sen. Josh McKoon says his bill will not allow businesses to discriminate against the LGBT community. (official Senate photo)
State Sen. Josh McKoon says his bill will not allow businesses to discriminate against the LGBT community. (Official Senate photo)

Highly publicized battles over such “religious freedom” or “religious liberty” bills broke out in Arizona and here in Georgia last year, with the bills failing in both instances thanks in no small part to widespread opposition from the business community and LGBT community.

But the men behind Georgia’s bills, state Rep. Sam Teasley (R-Marietta) and state Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus), vowed to reintroduce the bills in 2015. Rep. Teasley has done so with House Bill 29, and Sen. McKoon will any day now.

That’s what concerns LGBT activists like Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, who says Teasley’s HB 29 would allow corporations to exempt themselves from any state law or local ordinance that they feel inhibits their expression of religious views.

“The language that we have seen in House Bill 29 does not do anything to address the concerns we brought up in 2014 or have brought up as this debate has recommenced here in Georgia,” he says.

Graham believes the bill is even more troublesome this year because he says it will allow government workers to claim a religious exemption from having to do their duties.

“This opens the door to widespread discrimination to a whole host of people, not just the LGBT community,” he says, citing the possibility of a paramedic or police officer being given the right to refuse to help someone who is gay, or a single mother being denied or kicked out of housing by a landlord who believes only men should lead families.

Graham says there’s a relatively easy fix to the LGBT discrimination concerns over the bill.

“They can make sure that there are protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity that perhaps could be built into this bill,” he says.

In the meantime, Georgia Equality has launched the Georgia Unites Against Discrimination campaign to fight the legislation. Sharing the group’s concerns is the progressive political organization Better Georgia, which has gathered over 7,000 signed petitions in protest of such “religious freedom” legislation.

Bryan Long, executive director of Better Georgia, calls them “religion as an excuse” bills that would open the door to people using their religion to opt out of laws concerning discrimination, child welfare or spousal abuse.

“This legislation would lead to legal chaos over whose religion is more important in the eyes of our courts and lawmakers,” he says.

Long cites an incident in Texas where a gay couple, Ben Allen and Justin Hudgins, say they were turned down by a reception venue because they refused to host a same-sex wedding. Texas passed a state RFRA in 1999.

“It is because of God that I will not be a part in your reception, and I know he loves you, but not what you are doing,” All Occasion Party Place employee Robin Hearne is quoted by WFAA News 8 as having emailed Hudgins. “I simply said I cannot rent to you which is also my right.”

Bill supporters deny discrimination

McKoon says his bill is a reaction the Boerne decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997, and he claims there have been several instances of infringement on religious liberties in Georgia, including the removal of Bibles from a community resource section of a Georgia public library and a Bible study student organization being denied the right to use school facilities for voluntary Bible study in Banks County.

He also claims the bill will not result in LGBT discrimination such as a business owner denying service to a gay or lesbian person based on their religious beliefs.

Religious leaders rally in support of former fire chief Kelvin Cochran and "religious freedom" bills at the Capitol. (photo by Patrick Saunders)
Religious leaders rally in support of former fire chief Kelvin Cochran and “religious freedom” bills at the Capitol. (Photo by Patrick Saunders)

“This bill will cover natural persons only, so businesses won’t be able to assert a RFRA claim,” he tells the GA Voice. “Even if they were able to assert a RFRA claim, the Supreme Court has found that the government’s interest in preventing discrimination qualifies as a compelling state interest and so would overcome a RFRA objection in any case.”

Rep. Teasley claims his bill is narrowly tailored to apply specifically to government’s interactions with individuals, and that an unnamed representative from the LGBT community asked him to specify as such. Teasley said he also added language to specifically define “person” as a “natural person.”

“Nowhere in the bill does it give aid and comfort to any who would attempt to discriminate,” he says.

Virginia Galloway, regional director for the Faith and Freedom Coalition, led by Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition, echoes McKoon and Teasley’s statements, saying, “That has been something that had the bill sponsors scratching their heads from the get-go in what they consider confusion in the community.”

Both Teasley and Galloway cited an incident at Savannah State University in 2007, when a Christian club’s membership was terminated for a reported hazing incident, which reportedly was a foot-washing ceremony modeled after the story of Jesus Christ and his disciples. The Alliance Defending Freedom filed suit on behalf of the club and the group was reinstated in 2008.

Teasley, Galloway and McKoon all stated the bills aren’t limited to Christians, with each citing that observant Jews who believe a body ought not be disturbed after death would have a right to prevent an autopsy from being performed unless there’s a compelling state interest to do so, as in cases of murder.

However, gay activist Robbie Medwed, assistant director of Jewish LGBT organization SOJOURN, says there’s a way to address this issue without taking on the more problematic issues with the bills.

“While HB 29 would help in certain cases of avoiding unwanted autopsies, the negatives far outweigh the positives, and the problem of unwanted autopsies could easily be solved with an autopsy-specific bill,” he says.

Unintended consequences and ‘erotic liberty’

Lesbian state Rep. Simone Bell (D-Atlanta) was at a recent House session when the preacher of the day, Rev. Bryant Wright of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, described LGBT equality as “erotic liberty.”

She says Rep. Teasley came to her afterward to apologize that that type of message came across.

“I explained to him that this is the conversation I’ve been having with him about unintended consequences,” she says. “So I understand that he may not feel that way, but he has given people a platform across the state to use his particular bill to spread hate and discrimination.”

Rep. Simone Bell says the  'erotic liberty' sermon at the Capitol recently was an example of "unintended consequences" of the "religious freedom" bill fight. (file photo)
Rep. Simone Bell says the “erotic liberty” sermon at the Capitol recently was an example of “unintended consequences” of Rep. Sam Teasley’s bill. (File photo)

This includes such noted anti-gay organizations, including Georgia’s chapter of Conservative Women of America. Tanya Ditty, the state director of CWA, testified in 2012 before a House committee against a bill that would prohibit discrimination against LGBT state employees. In that testimony, she compared homosexuality to necrophilia, pedophilia and zoophilia.

But Bell said she’s against the bill more out of practicality than any other concern.

“My main argument against the bill is that it’s not needed,” she says. “They’re saying it fixes a problem that does not exist. We’re creating a law to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.”

She also cites the economic impact, with corporations and other business entities not wanting to do business in the state due to the bills.

Lesbian state Rep. Karla Drenner thinks Rep. Teasley has made improvements to the bill he presented last year, but still has concerns.

“Leaving it as is, I think it opens up a whole can of worms for a lot of entities in the state because anybody can use RFRA as a defense against disciplining employees who break the rules,” she says. “They can cite their religious beliefs as a way not to do something. So until things are more clearly defined, I think there are a lot of concerns.”

However, she said some of her concerns would be alleviated if Teasley were to include protections against LGBT discrimination in the bill. And she too, like Rep. Bell, is troubled by the rhetoric flying around the capitol as a result of such bills.

“I have never heard something called ‘erotic liberty’ and I think personally this is very similar to the 2004 marriage fight in that the preachers of the day came and instead of giving an ecumenical service about ‘God is good’ and ‘be loving and kind to one another,’ this guy comes in with a clear policy agenda,” she says.

“I do see this as a continual potential issue, that preachers will come in and talk about the [former] fire chief as a martyr and not in a way that is truthful,” Drenner added.

What exactly is religious freedom?

Even the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Galloway thinks Cochran’s firing and the “religious freedom” bills are separate situations.

“The Religious Freedom and Restoration Act would not help him from a legal standpoint. His situation is an employee and employer situation which would be covered by federal law,” she says. “The RFRA would not have any bearing on his situation one way or another.”

Openly gay Rev. Duncan Teague says these bills are a reaction to the legalization of same-sex marriage across the country. (photo by Patrick Saunders)
Openly gay Rev. Duncan Teague says these bills are a reaction to the legalization of same-sex marriage across the country. (Photo by Patrick Saunders)

Of course, that doesn’t mean proponents of the bills won’t continue making Cochran the face of the issue.

Meanwhile, McKoon and Teasley will continue to try to stem the tide of concerns emanating from the business community, who have largely condemned the bills, fearing the economic impact.

Bell and Drenner are calling on citizens to lobby their legislators and tell them how the bills would impact their lives.

“We need to be vocal. We need to be prepared to show up at the capitol in critical mass. We need to continue to educate ourselves on how these particular types of bills are being filed across the country so we make sure that our strategy is strong and can withstand the opposition,” says Bell.

Rev. Duncan Teague, who recently joined Georgia Equality as the group’s faith outreach consultant, comes at the issue with a unique perspective as a gay man of faith.

“This is not about my right to worship as a liberal religious Unitarian Universalist. It’s not about my right to have my relationship sanctioned under the religious community that I’m a part of, the religious community that my husband is a part of. This is about someone not liking it and trying to come up with a way of stopping it,” he says.

“That doesn’t sound like religious freedom.”

Dyana Bagby contributed.

psaunders@thegavoice.com | @patricksaunders