Needed bill on the Governor’s desk

J. Gerald Harris is editor of The Christian Index, the Georgia Baptist news journal.

Last week I feared that the HB 757 or “Free Exercise Protection Act” was “dead in the water” and not likely to see the light of day in this year’s legislative session. However, I believe I speak for multitudes of people of faith when I express great gratitude to Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and the leadership of the House and the Senate for working together to protect and expand religious freedom in our state.

I can only imagine the pressure and stress imposed by people from all sides regarding much of the legislation being considered. Special interest groups, large corporations and activists with a multiplicity of agendas bombard our legislators daily. Ultimately, I pray that these men and women who represent us in our state Capitol will be led by lofty principles, not loud persuasion, that they will forever prefer heavenly favor to earthly fame and God’s approbation rather than men’s applause.

I believe the decision of our state legislators to pass this important bill indicates the level of respect that our lawmakers have for religious liberty. I do not believe religious liberty is either Republican or Democrat, right or left, liberal or conservative. The free exercise of religion without the threat of government interference simply reinforces the principles of our founding fathers and the provisions found of our First Amendment.

In a book published by Mercer Press entitled “Church – State Matters: Fighting for Religious Liberty in Our Nation’s Capital,” J. Brent Walker writes about religious liberty legislation and says, “It bears witness to our common commitment to providing increased protection for religious liberty without advancing any particular sectarian interest. It highlights the fundamental proposition that if anyone’s religious liberty is left unprotected, everyone’s rights – religious and civil – are threatened.

“Restoring the ‘compelling state interest’ standard testified to the importance of the free exercise clause in the panoply of constitutional rights, and the government should be put on a short leash whenever it tries to run roughshod over the dictates of conscience.”

With both houses of our General Assembly having approved this significant measure on religious liberty, it has now been delivered to the desk of our Governor for his approval. I have personally known Nathan Deal since we were in college at Mercer University. I believe him to be a good man. His compassion for people such as those whom he has greatly assisted by reforming Georgia’s criminal justice system is apparent to all who know him.

It is my understanding that the Governor has three options. He can sign the “Free Exercise Protection Act” into law. He can do nothing and it can automatically become law in 45 days; or he can veto the legislation. If he vetoes the bill, I believe his otherwise great legacy will be greatly tarnished. If he does nothing, the bill will become law, but his neutrality in the matter will undoubtedly ignite the ire of those who oppose it and likely portray him as weak to those who approve it.

I trust the Governor will do what I suspect he will do and sign the bill and once again reveal his character and his ability as a strong leader of courage and conviction.