A group of 18 legal scholars, mostly professors of law, have written a letter objecting to the possible enactment of House Bill 29, the religious liberty bill sponsored by Rep. Sam Teasley. The letter is dated January 21st, and was sent to Rep. Teasley, along with Governor Nathan Deal, Lt. Governor Casey Cagle, House Speaker David Ralston, Senate President Pro Tempore David Shafer, and Senator Josh McKoon.
From the letter:
We understand that the Georgia General Assembly is now actively considering a religious freedom bill, House Bill 29, under the title of “Preventing Government Overreach on Religious Expression Act.” The signatories of this letter are legal scholars, with expertise in matters of religious freedom, civil rights, and the interaction between those fields. We do not agree among ourselves on whether religious freedom legislation, which may vary in its terms, is generally good. For reasons we explain below, however, we all emphatically agree that HB 29, as currently drafted, should not be enacted without significant revision.
Here is our message, in simple terms–the timing and broad content of the Bill will invite and legitimate discrimination. The Bill, if enacted, will send a powerful message that religiously-based refusals to provide equal treatment to particular classes of employees, customers, and persons seeking public service are legally superior to any legal prohibitions on invidious discrimination.
The letter goes on to describe in detail the authors’ reasoning for why they believe HB 29 would potentially allow for discrimination against classes of people, potentially violating laws mandating equal protection. In addition to familiar arguments over whether a bakery could refuse to serve a same-sex couple on religious grounds, the authors cite the possibility that a claim under the bill could override the civil rights and guarantee of equal protection that should be enjoyed by all people, and how one interpretation of the law could violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause.
The authors suggest several modifications to the bill that would resolve their concerns:
HB 29 can be revised to eliminate the risk that it will support invidious discrimination. The ways to eliminate these terrible possibilities from the operation of HB 29 are straightforward. First, the Bill should explicitly exclude for‐profit business entities from the class of “persons” whose religious exercise is protected. Second, the Bill should explicitly say that it does not apply to any law–-federal, state, or local-‐designed to protect the people of Georgia against discrimination, in any sphere of social or economic life, based on race, religion, national origin, sex, disability, age, marital or familial status, gender identity, or sexual orientation.
The letter concludes with this:
HB 29 is unnecessary to protect freedom of belief and worship in Georgia. The state constitution already protects each person’s “natural and inalienable right to worship God, each according to the dictates of that person’s own conscience.” In its current form, HB 29 is potentially quite harmful to the legal and business culture of Georgia. It might be interpreted to “justify practices inconsistent with the peace and safety of the state.” HB 29 would permit the religious beliefs of some Georgians to deprive others of their equal rights to participate in the state’s economic and social life. In its current form, we strongly urge you to reject it.
The entire ten page letter is below the fold.