Lessons for both sides of RFRA in case of Newton County mosque

Plans for a mosque in Newton County — and some loudly negative reactions to those plans — pose some uncomfortable truths to people on both sides of Georgia's religious-liberty debate .

For three years, legislators have considered incorporating the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act into state law. Each year’s bill has been different, and there have been other, more far-reaching aspects to some of them. But a common thread has been the “strict scrutiny” standard for cases involving free exercise, which bars “substantial” burdens on religious liberty absent a “compelling governmental interest.”

Proponents have warned religious liberty is eroding as the American populace becomes more secular. They insisted they weren't trying to protect only Christianity. One of the most prominent backers of a state RFRA, Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, reiterated that in a Facebook post about the Newton County debate:

“When it comes to our individual freedoms in this country, either everybody counts or nobody counts,” McKoon wrote. “If you decide to let government have the power to decide who has a belief that should be protected and who has a belief unworthy of protection, you have signed the death warrant of a free society.”

That’s exactly right. But McKoon’s sentiment hasn’t been adopted by some other Georgians — check the comments to his post — many of whom, I’d wager, have supported his religious-liberty bills.

Some 300 people turned out Monday for a public hearing in Covington about a Doraville-based mosque's plans to build a mosque, a cemetery and eventually a school on 135 acres in Newton County it bought last year. The majority of those at the meeting opposed the project .

But the mosque so far has submitted no plans and applied for no permits. The objectors apparently oppose any kind of plan by the mosque. I don't know how any honest person can take that attitude if they support religious liberty.

But I do know that, if county commissioners bow to public pressure, county taxpayers will foot the legal bill. A federal law passed in 2000, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), clarifies that religious discrimination in zoning decisions is illegal. As other cities and counties have learned, RLUIPA trumps angry town-hall speakers.

Now we get to the part where those who oppose RFRA get to squirm.

Contrary to bluster about the First Amendment being sufficient, our laws and court cases over time have made it necessary to bolster specific aspects of religious freedom.

A mosque, or any other religious community, might well win a zoning dispute simply on First Amendment grounds. But the RLUIPA makes it a simpler, easier, more clear-cut issue, preventing religious discrimination before it happens.

That was precisely the intent of RFRA. From which, by the way, RLUIPA came.

The federal RFRA originally covered state and local governments as well. We would be better off, and have avoided some recent fights at the Gold Dome, had that remained the case. But the U.S. Supreme Court said Congress couldn’t do that. Congress passed RLUIPA as a result.

So while Muslims and other faith groups are protected from government discrimination in zoning decisions, without having to file an expensive civil suit, they aren’t so protected in other ways.

It’d be nice if everyone acknowledged both of those truths.