Another pre-emptive strike on Georgia's 'religious liberty' bill

Georgia lawmakers opening their emails this morning found a note from an establishment voice warning about the "disservice" of the so-called religious liberty bill that's sure to come up next session.

The Georgia Chamber and Metro Atlanta Chamber have both already raised alarms about the legislation. This time, the warning shot came from Trey Childress, who was Sonny Perdue's budget director and Nathan Deal's chief operating officer.

Childress was writing on behalf of Competitive Georgia, a coalition of mostly business interests "united against discrimination." He warned that next year's push involves a "broad piece of legislation couched in sound bite [that] names no evil."

Wrote Childress:

Georgia is better than this.  Our reputation, as a state, is at risk.  And our economic opportunity is at risk because of those who would score a few political points without clear benefit to citizens, but with much to lose. Let’s continue to show the world what a welcoming and warm place Georgia is as a home and a place to do business, to treat others as we would want to be treated, but also to preserve our reputation and economic opportunity as a state.

There was a brutal but quick fight over this issue last winter, when opposition from corporate giants killed two bills introduced by state Sen. Josh McKoon and state Rep. Sam Teasley. Both plan to reintroduce similar proposals in 2015.

The sponsors say that the bills would protect people of any religion from government intrusion on their beliefs. Critics say it would pave the way for private business owners to cite their religious beliefs in declining to serve people they believe are gay. And some see it as a conservative response to the growing acceptance of gay marriage.

Teasley and McKoon have both worked since last session to clear the air with some of their critics, but firm opposition remains. Yet others see hope for a compromise.

One idea that's been floated involves including a ban on workforce discrimination based on sexual orientation, which is not currently covered by state law.

A bipartisan coalition that includes state Reps. Karla Drenner, an openly gay Democrat, and Wendell Willard, a conservative Republican, introduced language to extend those protections in 2013 but it never reached a vote.

Some GOP leaders privately say including the language in the religious liberty bill that pops next year could help bridge the divide.

Here's the full text of Childress' note to lawmakers:

As the Georgia General Assembly is set to reconvene next month, I am writing to express my concern about a piece of legislation to be introduced and considered that presents real risk to Georgia’s economy and business reputation.

Georgia has a proud record of growing its economy—ranked as the best state in the country for business, home to the world’s busiest airport, the fastest growing U.S. port, and 31 Fortune 1000 headquarters. This success is dependent on a business-friendly environment, tax incentives, an educated workforce, and a reputation for welcoming people of all backgrounds from around the globe for trade and commerce with good ‘ole Southern hospitality.  But Georgia’s reputation and economic opportunity are at risk by those who would compromise it for a path of political convenience.

Legislation is to be reintroduced to the Georgia General Assembly, labeled the “Protection of Religious Freedom Act,” that would allow individuals the broad discretion to claim that laws do not apply to them if they conflict with their religious freedom, a fundamental right already appropriately enshrined in our Constitution and federal laws.  This proposed law is a blunt instrument that creates concerning exposure for minorities and those who are otherwise vulnerable, at the hand of those who would misuse it.

This state law is suggested to protect citizens from other laws in the name of religious freedom, but the sponsors offer no specific examples of state laws from which citizens need protection. One wonders why they cannot name specifically the problems to be addressed.

I suggest there are two alternatives: either the concerns to be addressed are too controversial to discuss specifically and publicly; or there is nothing specific to be solved or gained other than a political win.  Both scenarios do a disservice to our citizens, responsible public debate, and our reputation as a state.

Indeed, there are legitimate issues of religious freedom that deserve transparent discussion and public debate.  If the concern is about the display of scripture in the public square, I ask you to address that concern specifically and directly.  If the concerns are about protecting religious freedom in conflict with school curriculum, please address that concern specifically and directly.  After all, addressing problems with solutions and transparency is what we expect of our leaders.  Instead, this proposal is a broad piece of legislation couched in sound bite and names no evil, but leaves it to individuals at their own discretion to name for themselves. Therein lies the danger.

Politicians propose laws for two reasons: To address problems in the law and to send messages to important constituencies.  If one cannot identify specific laws or prevalent religious freedom concerns from which this legislation would protect citizens, then this law must be designed to score a political win. This scenario is far more troubling.

In the context of current events, this can stoke the passions of a sensitive but important debate about how we treat others in our community who are otherwise unprotected. Such a debate should happen openly, soberly and respectfully, not with innuendo and subterfuge. Intended or not, it can appeal to the worst in human nature by catering to fear and disgust of those we do not understand. And it wraps it in a package that would otherwise seem innocuous, because who can be against religious freedom?

Georgia is better than this.  Our reputation, as a state, is at risk.  And our economic opportunity is at risk because of those who would score a few political points without clear benefit to citizens, but with much to lose. Let’s continue to show the world what a welcoming and warm place Georgia is as a home and a place to do business, to treat others as we would want to be treated, but also to preserve our reputation and economic opportunity as a state.

I hope that as this bill is considered you will do so with great caution.  And I welcome the opportunity to speak with you further about it.  In the meantime, please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or concerns.

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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