Two days ago a letter was sent to all 180 state Representatives (and presumably all 56 Senators) from Trey Childress of a group called Competitive Georgia. According to the Political Insider, the group is “a coalition of mostly business interests “united against discrimination.”” And as you will see below, Childress warns that passing a bill taken from a federal law which has been on the books since the Clinton years will damage Georgia’s reputation and ruin it’s businesses. The full text of the letter I received is below the fold, as is a response from the House sponsor of the bill Rep. Sam Teasley.
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December 16, 2014
As the Georgia General Assembly is set to reconvene next month, I am writing to express my concern about a piece of legislation to be introduced and considered that presents real risk to Georgia’s economy and business reputation.
Georgia has a proud record of growing its economy—ranked as the best state in the country for business, home to the world’s busiest airport, the fastest growing U.S. port, and 31 Fortune 1000 headquarters. This success is dependent on a business-friendly environment, tax incentives, an educated workforce, and a reputation for welcoming people of all backgrounds from around the globe for trade and commerce with good ‘ole Southern hospitality. But Georgia’s reputation and economic opportunity are at risk by those who would compromise it for a path of political convenience.
Legislation is to be reintroduced to the Georgia General Assembly, labeled the “Protection of Religious Freedom Act,” that would allow individuals the broad discretion to claim that laws do not apply to them if they conflict with their religious freedom, a fundamental right already appropriately enshrined in our Constitution and federal laws. This proposed law is a blunt instrument that creates concerning exposure for minorities and those who are otherwise vulnerable, at the hand of those who would misuse it.
This state law is suggested to protect citizens from other laws in the name of religious freedom, but the sponsors offer no specific examples of state laws from which citizens need protection. One wonders why they cannot name specifically the problems to be addressed.
I suggest there are two alternatives: either the concerns to be addressed are too controversial to discuss specifically and publicly; or there is nothing specific to be solved or gained other than a political win. Both scenarios do a disservice to our citizens, responsible public debate, and our reputation as a state.
Indeed, there are legitimate issues of religious freedom that deserve transparent discussion and public debate. If the concern is about the display of scripture in the public square, I ask you to address that concern specifically and directly. If the concerns are about protecting religious freedom in conflict with school curriculum, please address that concern specifically and directly. After all, addressing problems with solutions and transparency is what we expect of our leaders. Instead, this proposal is a broad piece of legislation couched in sound bite and names no evil, but leaves it to individuals at their own discretion to name for themselves. Therein lies the danger.
Politicians propose laws for two reasons: To address problems in the law and to send messages to important constituencies. If one cannot identify specific laws or prevalent religious freedom concerns from which this legislation would protect citizens, then this law must be designed to score a political win. This scenario is far more troubling.
In the context of current events, this can stoke the passions of a sensitive but important debate about how we treat others in our community who are otherwise unprotected. Such a debate should happen openly, soberly and respectfully, not with innuendo and subterfuge. Intended or not, it can appeal to the worst in human nature by catering to fear and disgust of those we do not understand. And it wraps it in a package that would otherwise seem innocuous, because who can be against religious freedom?
Georgia is better than this. Our reputation, as a state, is at risk. And our economic opportunity is at risk because of those who would score a few political points without clear benefit to citizens, but with much to lose. Let’s continue to show the world what a welcoming and warm place Georgia is as a home and a place to do business, to treat others as we would want to be treated, but also to preserve our reputation and economic opportunity as a state.
I hope that as this bill is considered you will do so with great caution. And I welcome the opportunity to speak with you further about it. In the meantime, please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or concerns.
Response from Representative Sam Teasley
Yesterday, Trey Childress sent an email to every member of the Georgia House suggesting that since he has not heard of any specific concerns that a state Religious Freedom (commonly known as RFRA) measure would address, he can only draw the conclusion that there is some nefarious motivation behind the effort. In multiple meetings with parties both in favor and concerned about the legislation, I have demonstrated case after case of government hubris and overreach. Mr. Childress has not attended any of those meetings and never reached out to me or the Senate sponsor of the bill to get answers to his questions. On top of that, while decrying “innuendo and subterfuge,” he uses a whole lot of both in assessing the motives of proponents of this measure.
Not long ago, a student at Sutton Middle School repeatedly sought permission to start a religious club at their school. Despite the fact that the school had multiple other student clubs operating on campus, the Principal at first denied the request. After the student’s parent noted that was not appropriate, the Principal allowed the club if the club paid rent and did not advertise on campus. This was a blatant denial of equal treatment granted to other clubs. As the club slowly grew despite the illegal restrictions, the Principal went so far as to dictate that if the student even mentioned the club to other students he would be punished. It was only after being served a lawsuit did the school end its blatant disregard for the student’s fundamental right to religious freedom.
Many observant Jews believe that the body ought not be disturbed after death, so they object to an automatic, routine autopsy. I recently met with a Rabbi who expressed his frustration to me by saying that he had to argue with the coroner all the time about this. Because Georgia does not have a state RFRA, if the local government insists on performing the autopsy, there is no legal recourse.
The protections for religious expression that had been in place for 200 years no longer apply due to the 1990 Smith Decision from the US Supreme Court. While this may be a surprise to many, the citizens of Georgia do not have adequate protection from state and local government as it pertains to their religious exercise. The purpose of a state RFRA is to make clear to all government officials what the rules are so that litigation can hopefully be avoided. I understand why groups like the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State oppose this, but since this has been on the books in various forms for over 20 years (with no cases of this language being used as a “blunt instrument” to discriminate against any minority group) with at least 30 states having this protection for their citizens, it begs the question, “Why is there so much over-the-top push back on this measure?”