'Religious liberty' supporters invoke embattled Atlanta fire chief

At every twist of the growing debate over the "religious liberty" bill that's sure to come up next year, critics question whether there's a compelling reason to add the controversial new language.

Trey Childress, an establishment GOP figure who raised alarms about the legislation yesterday, echoed that by saying “broad piece of legislation couched in sound bite [that] names no evil" in an email to every legislator.

Today, state Rep. Sam Teasley, the Marietta Republican who is sponsoring a version of the legislation, hit the "reply all" button with a rebuttal that attached several examples that he said show a pressing need for the proposal.

Among them are a middle school student who was denied permission to form a religious club, and a rabbi who objected to automatic autopsies on religious grounds.

State Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, added his own example in a note to lawmakers: That of Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran, who was suspended after authoring a religious book in which he describes homosexuality as a “sexual perversion." Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said he was suspended because he didn't notify city officials about the book until after it was published.

"There is no veiled agenda, simply a mandate to enact common-sense religious freedom protection legislation that states such as California and Massachusetts passed years ago but Georgia never made the effort to pass," wrote Setzler.

A quick primer on the bill: Sponsors say it would protect people of any religion from government intrusion. Critics say it would allow private business owners to cite religious beliefs to deny people service. And big businesses helped squelch the efforts this past year.

We've attached both emails below:

Here's Teasley's email:

Yesterday, Trey Childress sent an email to every member of the Georgia House suggesting that since he has not heard of any specific concerns that a state Religious Freedom (commonly known as RFRA) measure would address, he can only draw the conclusion that there is some nefarious motivation behind the effort.

In multiple meetings with parties both in favor and concerned about the legislation, I have demonstrated case after case of government hubris and overreach. Mr. Childress has not attended any of those meetings and never reached out to me or the Senate sponsor of the bill to get answers to his questions. On top of that, while decrying "innuendo and subterfuge," he uses a whole lot of both in assessing the motives of proponents of this measure.

Not long ago, a student at Sutton Middle School repeatedly sought permission to start a religious club at their school. Despite the fact that the school had multiple other student clubs operating on campus, the Principal at first denied the request. After the student’s parent noted that was not appropriate, the Principal allowed the club if the club paid rent and did not advertise on campus. This was a blatant denial of equal treatment granted to other clubs. As the club slowly grew despite the illegal restrictions, the Principal went so far as to dictate that if the student even mentioned the club to other students he would be punished. It was only after being served a lawsuit did the school end its blatant disregard for the student’s fundamental right to religious

freedom.

Many observant Jews believe that the body ought not be disturbed after death, so they object to an automatic, routine autopsy. I recently met with a Rabbi who expressed his frustration to me by saying that he had to argue with the coroner all the time about this. Because Georgia does not have a state RFRA, if the local government insists on performing the autopsy, there is no legal recourse.

The protections for religious expression that had been in place for 200 years no longer apply due to the 1990 Smith Decision from the US Supreme Court. While this may be a surprise to many, the citizens of Georgia do not have adequate protection from state and local government as it pertains to their religious exercise.

The purpose of a state RFRA is to make clear to all government officials what the rules are so that litigation can hopefully be avoided. I understand why groups like the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State oppose this, but since this has been on the books in various forms for over 20 years (with no cases of this language being used as a "blunt instrument" to discriminate against any minority group) with at least 30 states having this protection for their citizens, it begs the question, "Why is there so much over-the-top push back on this measure?"

And here's Setzler's note:

Thank you for the question about the relevance of legislative action to protect religious freedom...To be very specific, just 3 weeks ago on November 24, the 54-year old African0American Fire Chief of Atlanta Kelvin Cochran, who prior to his current role was appointed in 2009 by President Obama to serve as our nation’s chief fire official, was suspended without pay by Mayor Kasim Reed for sharing his Christian beliefs in a self-published book.

Cochran, on his own time and reflecting his personeal religious convictions, penned a small self-published book for members of his church that drew the attention of the LGBT community for its stand on traditional marriage and sexual immorality. Ostensibly, he was criticized for giving copies of the book to a small group of co-workers with whom he participated in a voluntary after-hours Bible study.

Mayor Reed responded to the book's statement and the complaint of the LGBT community, by suspending Cochran without pay, requiring him to attend sensitivity training, and prohibiting the distribution of the book on city property. No mention was made that Cochran's words are taken from the Biblical books of Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians and include warnings about promiscuity, idolatry, jealousy, hatred, strife, envy, dissensions, heresies, murder and drunkenness; among others.

Without a STATE-level religious freedom protection statute that currently exists in 30 other states and that would mirror the basic protections that apply at the FEDERAL-level (which passed near unanimously and was signed by President Clinton in 1993) vital statutory protection from religious discrimination from state and local governments simply do not exist in Georgia. There is no veiled agenda, simply a mandate to enact common-sense religious freedom protection legislation that states such as California and Massachusetts passed years ago but Georgia never made the effort to pass.

Basic religious liberty is a bipartisan issue that members of both parties have strongly supported over the years. It is simply not true, as you suggest, that such a bill would provide “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.” In 1997, the United States Supreme Court in a surprising decision, ruled very clearly that the 1993 federal statute protecting religious liberty applied only to protection from federal government entities.

The case stated explicitly that each state would have to pass its own religious freedom protection statute if states wanted the basic religious liberty protections to apply to state and local governments. What the courts had consistently protected for the first 210 years of our nation’s history, now would require STATE-level statute to have effect.

I want our members understand that this is a very serious and immediately relevant issue with big implications for any public employee who happens to be a person of faith: school principals, public safety officials, and many others. Members can contact the Attorney General’s office or the office of Legislative Counsel if they have any questions about this issue.

I honestly cannot imagine this legislature, once members are fully informed on this issue, not acting decisively to pass a strong religious freedom protection statute in the 2015 session.

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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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