Just over 20 years ago, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to protect Americans’ right to live out their faith without undue burden from the federal government. The bill passed with almost unanimous bipartisan support and was promptly signed by President Bill Clinton.
Since that time, over 30 states — including all those contiguous to Georgia — have enacted similar measures or had the RFRA protections provided by judicial ruling; then-state Sen. Barack Obama voted for Illinois’ religious freedom act.
In Georgia, state Rep. Sam Teasley, R-Marietta, recently pre-filed such a bill for this state. But suddenly, despite over two decades of favorable experience with similar legislation at both the federal and state level, opponents now insist the sky will fall if Georgia joins the effort to protect religious freedom. We appreciate the governor’s warm remarks about the legislation and hope legislators will recognize this hysteria for what it is and support House Bill 29, Rep. Teasley’s common-sense bill.
Opponents argue this legislation is unnecessary, that religious freedom is well protected by the First Amendment. But in 1990, the Supreme Court limited that protection, which was the very reason Congress passed the federal RFRA. That law restored the protection Americans had enjoyed for decades before the unfortunate Supreme Court decision. Many states have followed suit to ensure religious freedom is similarly guarded against state and local assaults.
Opponents also deny faith-based speech and activities are ever disfavored in Georgia. But students of faith at the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and other universities would disagree. Christian student organizations at Georgia universities and public schools have been denied the recognition and funding routinely granted to non-religious student organizations. Tech prohibited students from engaging in “intolerant” faith-based speech. At Savannah State, a Christian student club was expelled from campus for “hazing.” The offense? Engaging in a foot-washing ceremony at a discipleship retreat.
Though many examples of discrimination against faith-based activity arise in the context of public schools and universities, the problem isn’t restricted to academia. In DeKalb County, a church that had been renting a recreation center for weekly services was suddenly told it was no longer welcome, pursuant to a new (unwritten) policy against renting the center to churches. A Christian in Pine Mountain was prohibited from placing free Bibles in a library that allowed distribution of other community materials. Rockdale County required churches — alone among all other organizations — to have at least three acres of land. In case after case, people of faith have been singled out for more burdensome treatment.
Despite these examples, opponents of the proposed Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act warn darkly that the legislation would usher in all manner of discrimination and outrages perpetuated in the name of religion. But in the 21 years such legislation has been on the books in federal law and in other states, such injustice has never – not once – occurred. Do the opponents really think Georgians are more likely than anyone else in the country to use their religious freedom for ill rather than good?
And even if religious Georgians were as mean-spirited as RFRA opponents suggest, the text of the bill doesn’t lend itself to such abuse. The bill, similar to the federal statute, merely states that state or local government may not infringe on a person’s exercise of faith without showing a compelling government interest for the infringement, and that there is no less restrictive way to advance that compelling interest. It restores the balancing test courts used for 200 years in analyzing First Amendment claims based on religious freedom.
The religious freedom act wouldn’t guarantee any litigant a victory in court; it would merely require government to show that its interest should prevail in that particular case. That this preference for religious freedom is now considered by some to be “dangerous” — in America, no less — is sad commentary about how much freedom we’ve already lost.
“America was founded as a land of religious freedom,” Sen. Ted Kennedy said in sponsoring the federal RFRA, “and a haven from religious persecution.” Isn’t it time we join other states in honoring that heritage?
Jane Robbins is an attorney and senior fellow at the American Principles Project, a conservative think tank.
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