At next week’s Georgia Republican Convention in Athens, delegates will be asked to consider a number of resolutions, among them one in support of Georgia’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Eleven of fourteen GOP District conventions passed resolutions urging the Georgia House to pass Senate Bill 129 without any amendments, and the resolution under consideration next week is expected to mirror that message.
We understand that there will be an effort to have the resolution modified so that it would include language prohibiting discrimination and protecting the welfare of children. That was the intent of an amendment to SB 129 offered at the end of the legislative session:
“Compelling governmental interest” includes, but is not limited to, protecting the welfare of a child from abuse or neglect as provided by state law and protecting persons against discrimination on any ground prohibited by federal, state, or local law.
Once that amendment from Rep. Mike Jacobs was added, the measure was laid on the table, and no vote was taken in the Judiciary Committee or full House on the underlying bill.
What would be the effect of adding the amendment proposed by Rep. Jacobs to Senate Bill 129? As worded, it would prevent a religious person from using Georgian’s RFRA as a reason to refuse service to a gay couple who wanted to get married. To understand why, take a look at this page on the city of Atlanta’s website. It states that “All City of Atlanta non-discrimination laws prohibit discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity,” including
Decisions about selection or treatment of customers by businesses that provide goods or services to the public (often referred to as “public accommodations”) in Atlanta, including hotels, restaurants, bars, banks, theaters and amusement parks.
As this is a local law, it would be considered a compelling government interest under RFRA, and therefore make it impossible for a business owner to cite the Religious Freedom Act as a reason to refuse service to a gay couple based on the owner’s religious views. Likewise, it would prevent an employer from using RFRA as a reason to not hire a LGBT person.
Of course, there are consequences for passing Senate Bill 129 without amendments as well, and once again local ordinances like the Atlanta measure referred to above are a part of it.
Assuming a plain RFRA were passed, a restaurant owner in the city of Atlanta could refuse to let their restaurant to be used for a reception following a same-sex wedding, citing religious beliefs and the state RFRA. At that point, there would be a conflict between state law and city ordinance. Under Georgia law, the city would be forced to defend its ordinance in court, rather than the business owner who refused service. While it can’t be predicted if the city or state ultimately would prevail in defending its position, there could be considerable time and expense by the city spent defending its ordinance in court, especially if the measure were to be appealed.
Other cities and counties could decide against adding anti-discrimination protections based on a desire to avoid a potential RFRA lawsuit, and the expense it would entail. For those supporting civil rights at the city or county level because of the difficulty in passing an anti LGBT discrimination measure statewide, a RFRA without amendment would represent a major setback for their movement.
A CBS / New York Times poll released Wednesday showed that nationwide, 69% of Republicans and 73% of Tea Party supporters say businesses should be allowed to refuse service to same sex couples if it violates their religious beliefs, compared to 51% of all adults. In the same poll, 34% of Republicans thought that same sex couples should be allowed to marry, compared to 57% of all adults.
Governor Nathan Deal has stated his support for an anti-discrimination clause in the final version of the bill. It will be interesting to see if the grassroots of his party agrees with him.