Religious liberty law needed?

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

The so-called religious liberty law being pushed in the General Assembly has rallied opponents and defenders alike. Today, two faith leaders write that the potential for misuse of new religious freedom laws is already being realized around the country in dangerous and discriminatory ways. A supporter of House Bill 29, however, cites examples of why it’s needed, and why the sky will not fall if it becomes law.

Unintended consequences skew freedom

By Peter Berg and David Key Sr.

As faith leaders who believe our elected officials should focus on unifying bipartisan issues rather than polarizing disputes, we are disturbed to hear that House Bill 29, the Preventing Government Overreach on Religious Expression Act, has been introduced in the Georgia Legislature in advance of the upcoming session.

Similar legislation died due to strenuous bipartisan objections in the last session of the Legislature. The U.S. and Georgia constitutions already provide strong religious protections that have stood the test of time. We do not need divisive measures that could potentially redefine this fundamental American value.

Our ancestors came to America to escape religious wars and persecution, expecting that their faiths, rights and lives would be protected. As a Baptist pastor and a rabbi, we value this history deeply and consider religious liberty a cornerstone of our nation’s identity and values.

We therefore caution our elected leaders against tinkering with the timeless concept of religious freedom, especially when there is no evidence our religious rights are being compromised. New religious freedom restoration acts may have unintended consequences that tip the careful balance we have achieved between secular laws and religious practices. We must ensure Americans are not harmed, intentionally or otherwise, in the rush to enact new protections for religious beliefs.

Indeed, we are already seeing examples of these acts used for dangerous and discriminatory purposes that were likely unforeseen by lawmakers.

In a suit filed here in Georgia, an employee-assistance counselor sued her company after she refused to counsel a gay employee. She claimed a right to discriminate despite a company policy that prohibited counselors from discriminating against clients.

In Utah, a Department of Labor investigation into child labor violations was disrupted when a suspect claimed his religious beliefs forbade him from discussing such matters with the government. A federal judge recently found in his favor, stalling the investigation.

In Gilbert, Ariz., several individuals sued the town, saying its sign ordinance violated a religious freedom restoration act and embroiling this small community in years of costly litigation.

In addition, giving for-profit corporations religious rights – which Georgia’s Religious Expression Act would likely do — oversteps the careful balance of religious protection that we have lived by for centuries.

While businesses play an important role in our society, they are not endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights as citizens, nor do they have souls. This expansion of religious protection to corporations has broad implications for laws providing equal protection against discrimination in public services and businesses that serve the public. We must be as vigilant against corporate threats to our faiths as we are against government threats.

We understand that from time to time differences in religious beliefs and public policy arise that need to be reviewed in the courts, but those issues should be guided by the protections guaranteed by our Constitution. In the few instances when it is necessary to clarify how those differences are resolved, we must err on the side of protecting the rights of all rather than accommodating the fears of the few.

At the Georgia Faith Forum organized by diverse religious leaders shortly before this year’s election, Governor Deal spoke eloquently of the role religion plays in public life and called on faith communities to work together to address issues like juvenile justice and education, both of which have involved successful bipartisan solutions under his leadership. Rather than attempting to legislate solutions to our conflicts and differences, we should focus our efforts on unifying causes such as these.

Come, let us reason together, as Scripture calls us to do. In doing so, we might find ourselves united across all divides to address the real problems facing Georgia.

Rabbi Peter Berg is senior rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta. The Rev. David Key Sr. is director of Baptist Studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.

Religious liberty bill deserves support

By Jane Robbins

Just over 20 years ago, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to protect Americans’ right to live out their faith without undue burden from the federal government. The bill passed with almost unanimous bipartisan support and was promptly signed by President Bill Clinton.

Since that time, over 30 states — including all those contiguous to Georgia — have enacted similar measures or had the RFRA protections provided by judicial ruling; then-state Sen. Barack Obama voted for Illinois’ religious freedom act.

In Georgia, state Rep. Sam Teasley, R-Marietta, recently pre-filed such a bill for this state. But suddenly, despite over two decades of favorable experience with similar legislation at both the federal and state level, opponents now insist the sky will fall if Georgia joins the effort to protect religious freedom. We appreciate the governor’s warm remarks about the legislation and hope legislators will recognize this hysteria for what it is and support House Bill 29, Rep. Teasley’s common-sense bill.

Opponents argue this legislation is unnecessary, that religious freedom is well protected by the First Amendment. But in 1990, the Supreme Court limited that protection, which was the very reason Congress passed the federal RFRA. That law restored the protection Americans had enjoyed for decades before the unfortunate Supreme Court decision. Many states have followed suit to ensure religious freedom is similarly guarded against state and local assaults.

Opponents also deny faith-based speech and activities are ever disfavored in Georgia. But students of faith at the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and other universities would disagree. Christian student organizations at Georgia universities and public schools have been denied the recognition and funding routinely granted to non-religious student organizations. Tech prohibited students from engaging in “intolerant” faith-based speech. At Savannah State, a Christian student club was expelled from campus for “hazing.” The offense? Engaging in a foot-washing ceremony at a discipleship retreat.

Though many examples of discrimination against faith-based activity arise in the context of public schools and universities, the problem isn’t restricted to academia. In DeKalb County, a church that had been renting a recreation center for weekly services was suddenly told it was no longer welcome, pursuant to a new (unwritten) policy against renting the center to churches. A Christian in Pine Mountain was prohibited from placing free Bibles in a library that allowed distribution of other community materials. Rockdale County required churches — alone among all other organizations — to have at least three acres of land. In case after case, people of faith have been singled out for more burdensome treatment.

Despite these examples, opponents of the proposed Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act warn darkly that the legislation would usher in all manner of discrimination and outrages perpetuated in the name of religion. But in the 21 years such legislation has been on the books in federal law and in other states, such injustice has never – not once – occurred. Do the opponents really think Georgians are more likely than anyone else in the country to use their religious freedom for ill rather than good?

And even if religious Georgians were as mean-spirited as RFRA opponents suggest, the text of the bill doesn’t lend itself to such abuse. The bill, similar to the federal statute, merely states that state or local government may not infringe on a person’s exercise of faith without showing a compelling government interest for the infringement, and that there is no less restrictive way to advance that compelling interest. It restores the balancing test courts used for 200 years in analyzing First Amendment claims based on religious freedom.

The religious freedom act wouldn’t guarantee any litigant a victory in court; it would merely require government to show that its interest should prevail in that particular case. That this preference for religious freedom is now considered by some to be “dangerous” — in America, no less — is sad commentary about how much freedom we’ve already lost.

“America was founded as a land of religious freedom,” Sen. Ted Kennedy said in sponsoring the federal RFRA, “and a haven from religious persecution.” Isn’t it time we join other states in honoring that heritage?

Jane Robbins is an attorney and senior fellow at the American Principles Project, a conservative think tank.