While Georgia’s misleadingly named Religious Freedom Restoration Act may still pass the state legislature before it adjourns, it had a major setback when its conservative supporters’ true goal was exposed. Like similar bills being pushed across the country, it is masked as simply a measure defending religious liberty, but it is really a vehicle designed to give legal cover to discrimination. By a one-vote margin, the House Judiciary Committee amended the bill so it could not be used to trump anti-discrimination laws, with three Republicans joining all the committee’s Democrats. The bill’s supporters then voted to table the bill rather than advance a bill that no longer allowed discrimination.
But the bill isn’t dead. Until the Georgia legislature adjourns on April 2, anything can happen. In fact, the House Judiciary Committee announced late Friday that it would resume considering the bill on Monday. But in some encouraging news, that meeting has been cancelled. As reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution:
A specially called meeting of the House Judiciary Committee set for Monday was cancelled, leaving the future of the ‘religious liberty’ bill in doubt.
The back-and-forth on the bill comes as Indiana deals with the backlash from adopting a similar law that has led to calls of boycotts and the potential loss of tens of millions of dollars in tourism and economic development. Indiana Gov. Mike Spence on Sunday told ABC News the law is not about discrimination but refused to say whether it would permit a business owner to refuse service to someone with whom they disagree.
As Georgia legislators are learning, this is a bill that has the public’s attention, and people are not happy with it. When the Judiciary Committee heard public testimony on the bill last week, far more people showed up than the committee chairman was willing to make time for. Among those who went to the state capitol to testify was Rev. Tim McDonald, senior pastor at First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, former President of Concerned Black Clergy of Metropolitan Atlanta, and current co-chair of African American Ministers In Action at PFAW. He was ultimately unable to offer his testimony in person, but he submitted it in writing. Rev. McDonald wrote, in part:
Equality and basic rights should never yield to discrimination. But this bill would legalize discrimination, and it does so by distorting the concept of religious liberty.
Many other religious leaders here in Georgia have agreed and have opposed this bill. So have conservatives like former state attorney Michael Bowers, and businesses like Wal-Mart, which has opposed similar legislation in Arkansas.
It is clear that rather than fixing a problem, this bill would create problems, often for the most vulnerable among us. Handing people the right to use the mantle of religious liberty to harm others is wrong. My faith teaches me that I should speak out against proposals that could deny basic rights to others, especially when it’s being done in the name of religion.
During the public testimony, bill supporters kept returning to one misleading talking point: Although the bill mirrors a federal RFRA that has been on the books for 20 years, as well as several longtime state RFRAs, opponents couldn’t point to a case where the law was used to enable otherwise illegal discrimination. Rev. McDonald addressed this in his testimony:
[This bill threatens to allow discrimination] even though, and in large part because, the bill’s language tracks the language of the federal RFRA. State courts are likely to follow the guidance of the United States Supreme Court in how to interpret this almost identical language. Unfortunately, with last June’s 5-4 Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court gravely misinterpreted that federal law. Five Justices ruled, for the first time, that for-profit corporations can invoke the law, and they essentially excised from the statute the requirement that it can be triggered only by a substantial burden on actual religious exercise. Under Hobby Lobby, having your religious beliefs offended is enough. So a state court following the Hobby Lobby logic could easily equate a business owner’s being religiously offended by a gay employee or a customer’s “lifestyle choice” with a significant burden on the owner’s religious liberty. That is why the bill transforms religious liberty protection from a shield into a sword.
Keep an eye out for this. Until the legislature adjourns, the bill can come back to life, and conservatives in Georgia could succeed in weaponizing religious liberty in their state as Indiana did last week.