In reading the printed words in the proposed Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act (SB 129), it is difficult to see on its face how it should alarm anyone. It simply says that religious freedom – a freedom enshrined in the First Amendment to our U.S. Constitution and Article I, Paragraph IV of the Georgia Constitution – shall require the Georgia courts to insure that any infringement of religion by the government takes place only when there is “a compelling governmental interest,” and the government utilizes the “least restrictive means of achieving that compelling governmental interest.”
Similar language was passed in the early 1990’s by the U.S. Congress to protect us against over-reaching federal action, and 19 States – red and blue – have subsequently passed similar laws as well.
So what is the harm? Well, let’s take a hard look below the surface because as a legislator for ten years, I came to understand the importance of recognizing what is the motivation behind a bill, and as a lawyer, I am always concerned with unintended consequences.
There are many individuals and groups that I greatly admire supporting this legislation. Representative Sam Teasley and Senator Josh McKoon, sponsors of the House and Senate versions of the bill, are both friends and former colleagues, and I believe the sincerity of their positive motives for bringing this legislation. The Faith and Freedom Coalition is also a good organization which has been a strong positive advocate for people of faith.
However, we cannot ignore others who have marched to our Capitol in support of this legislation and have clearly indicated their hatred – yes, hatred — for gays and lesbians and others in the LGBT community, and their intention to use this legislation to try to discriminate against these fellow citizens. This cannot be allowed to happen. Not in the 21st Century. Not in our state. Not in my Lord and Savior’s name.
Furthermore, as a lawyer who began his career as a Special Assistant Attorney General handling child abuse cases and a former member of the Georgia Family Violence Commission, I am concerned that this bill will be wrongfully twisted by those perpetrating child abuse and family violence as a defense in court to justify their actions.
So, what can be done? To borrow from Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, let us reason together.”
SB 129 already rightly recognizes reasonable exceptions to guard against misuse of this proposed law by protecting employers and excluding convicted prisoners in our penal institutions. We should also add two additional critically needed exceptions to guard against wrongful discrimination and to protect our fellow Georgians from violence.
The first additional exception should expressly bar the application of the law against any present of future civil rights law or local ordinance protecting citizens against discrimination. Texas, for instance, already recognizes this exception in its Religious Freedom and Restoration Act. The second exception should bar the use of the statute as a defense in cases involving allegations of child abuse or family violence.
These two additional exceptions will allow the advocates of the proposed Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act to afford Georgia citizens the same protections contained in federal law and guaranteed to citizens in 19 other states, while at the same time insuring that the law will not be manipulated and misused to try and discriminate or provide a shield to those who would do violence against vulnerable members of our society.