EDITORIAL: Don't hasten toward harm

The state Legislature has hit high gear in rushing through a divisive religious liberty bill. They should slow down and take time to analyze a law with great potential to bring harm to Georgia.

Put on the brakes! That is our urgent advice to a Georgia General Assembly that finds itself in the rare position of flooring the accelerator on religious liberty legislation that has potential to both batter this state’s economy and lead to unlawful discrimination.

Why the rush, we ask? We can think of no reasons other than election-year showboating or a misguided, potentially venal, attempt to protect a freedom that’s already been guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution for more than 225 years.

We urge lawmakers to, instead, set a deliberate pace in considering what’s now known as House Bill 757. It’s the result of a week of legislative action in a House and Senate that seemed determined to push through law with as few opportunities to impact the outcome as possible. That’s bad policymaking at best; and terrible lawmaking when it concerns a matter that the state’s business community and civil liberties activists alike broadly see as potentially damaging to the state’s economic and human rights interests.

HB757 hurriedly combined the so-called “Pastor Protection Act” with a Senate bill known as the “Georgia First Amendment Defense Act.” Passed Friday by the Senate, the bill is headed back to the House. As early as Monday, the House could simply “agree” with the Senate’s work, which would send the bill to Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk.

That’s no way to forthrightly handle a topic as volatile as religious liberty, given strong, sincerely held views on both sides.

The central issue is whether religious beliefs should be sufficient to allow actions that might otherwise be considered illegal discrimination.

The pastor protection bill championed by House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, seemed the most tightly tailored and reasonable of the broad lot of religious liberty bills offered up by legislators. It reiterates that no “religious practitioner” could be forced to perform marriage ceremonies violating their beliefs. Gay marriage is the target here.

HB 757, though, piles on additional, problematic layers. It reads in part that, “Government shall not take any adverse action against a person or faith-based organization wholly or partially on the basis that such person or faith-based organization believes, speaks, or acts in accordance with a sincerely held religious belief regarding lawful marriage between two people, including the belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a union.”

It’s easy to see why many believe this broad language could fuel discriminatory conduct by individuals or groups. That’s not unreasonable — or unlikely — in this spectacularly contentious, judgmental age.

In a letter Thursday, Maggie Garrett, legislative director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, wrote that, “In short, this bill allows any person, business, non-profit entity, and taxpayer-funded organization to ignore any law that conflicts with their religious beliefs about marriage. This bill would cause real harm to real people … .” Ironically, she wrote, it likely violates the First and 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The state’s business leaders were quick to weigh in last week with their own concerns. The Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce are among those urging caution and due deliberation. International hotel chains beseeched the Legislature last week to not create a reason for business and people to avoid this state. That’s not a far-fetched worry, given the economic damage reported in Indiana, after that state adopted religious liberty legislation.

And, in a world increasingly inclined to see things along harsh, yea-or-nay lines, our intent is not to undermine the importance — sacredness, even — of people being free to practice their religion. The First Amendment exists for good reason. Religious views should be respected and honored – as long as they don’t cause unlawful harm to others holding different views.

The Christian apostle Paul, a religious zealot for the ages, himself offered a guideline for our interactions one with another. He advised in the book of Romans that, “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.”

That religious concept also holds secular wisdom, we believe. The General Assembly, given its stubborn refusal to let this non-productive matter drop, should keep St. Paul’s counsel in mind and allow adequate time for this divisive legislation to be fully discussed via the normal legislative process.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.