Unintended consequences tip balance of freedom

As faith leaders who believe our elected officials should focus on unifying bipartisan issues rather than polarizing disputes, we are disturbed to hear that House Bill 29, the Preventing Government Overreach on Religious Expression Act, has been introduced in the Georgia Legislature in advance of the upcoming session.

Similar legislation died due to strenuous bipartisan objections in the last session of the Legislature. The U.S. and Georgia constitutions already provide strong religious protections that have stood the test of time. We do not need divisive measures that could potentially redefine this fundamental American value.

Our ancestors came to America to escape religious wars and persecution, expecting that their faiths, rights and lives would be protected. As a Baptist pastor and a rabbi, we value this history deeply and consider religious liberty a cornerstone of our nation’s identity and values.

We therefore caution our elected leaders against tinkering with the timeless concept of religious freedom, especially when there is no evidence our religious rights are being compromised. New religious freedom restoration acts may have unintended consequences that tip the careful balance we have achieved between secular laws and religious practices. We must ensure Americans are not harmed, intentionally or otherwise, in the rush to enact new protections for religious beliefs.

Indeed, we are already seeing examples of these acts used for dangerous and discriminatory purposes that were likely unforeseen by lawmakers.

In a suit filed here in Georgia, an employee-assistance counselor sued her company after she refused to counsel a gay employee. She claimed a right to discriminate despite a company policy that prohibited counselors from discriminating against clients.

In Utah, a Department of Labor investigation into child labor violations was disrupted when a suspect claimed his religious beliefs forbade him from discussing such matters with the government. A federal judge recently found in his favor, stalling the investigation.

In Gilbert, Ariz., several individuals sued the town, saying its sign ordinance violated a religious freedom restoration act and embroiling this small community in years of costly litigation.

In addition, giving for-profit corporations religious rights – which Georgia’s Religious Expression Act would likely do — oversteps the careful balance of religious protection that we have lived by for centuries.

While businesses play an important role in our society, they are not endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights as citizens, nor do they have souls. This expansion of religious protection to corporations has broad implications for laws providing equal protection against discrimination in public services and businesses that serve the public. We must be as vigilant against corporate threats to our faiths as we are against government threats.

We understand that from time to time differences in religious beliefs and public policy arise that need to be reviewed in the courts, but those issues should be guided by the protections guaranteed by our Constitution. In the few instances when it is necessary to clarify how those differences are resolved, we must err on the side of protecting the rights of all rather than accommodating the fears of the few.

At the Georgia Faith Forum organized by diverse religious leaders shortly before this year’s election, Governor Deal spoke eloquently of the role religion plays in public life and called on faith communities to work together to address issues like juvenile justice and education, both of which have involved successful bipartisan solutions under his leadership. Rather than attempting to legislate solutions to our conflicts and differences, we should focus our efforts on unifying causes such as these.

Come, let us reason together, as Scripture calls us to do. In doing so, we might find ourselves united across all divides to address the real problems facing Georgia.

Rabbi Peter Berg is senior rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta. The Rev. David Key Sr. is director of Baptist Studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.