Groups clash over ‘religious liberty’ at the Georgia Capitol

Georgia’s fight over religious freedom and gay rights spilled Tuesday into the hallways of the Capitol, with both supporters and opponents making their case about so-called “religious liberty” legislation that has vexed Georgia’s corporate leaders, gay community and members of the state’s Republican Party.

But if there was any question the issue was confined solely to Georgia, a national gay rights advocate took to Twitter to issue a warning that will likely cause a shudder in the hearts of the state’s corporate leaders because of its use of one word: “boycott.”

“GA may pass anti-LGBT laws in name of religious freedom,” tweeted the actor George Takei, who many still know as Mr. Sulu on “Star Trek.” “We beat this in Indiana,” he wrote, before encouraging his 1.8 million followers to retweet his comments “if you’ll join a boycott again. #NoJimCrow.”

The tweet came as leaders of the 1.3 million-member Georgia Baptist Mission Board called on lawmakers to pass bills they said would protect religious viewpoints and prevent discrimination against religious groups. The board’s Mike Griffin made an explicit link to same-sex marriage, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that state prohibitions on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.

Some Christians, Griffin said, have “deeply held convictions” that made them a target of what he and others in the group said was discrimination. Several speakers at a press conference held by the group told personal stories of incidents they said trampled their faith, including a recent decision in Carroll County that Villa Rica High School and its principal should not have allowed a local church to perform baptisms in the school stadium that included 18 students and a coach on the football team.

Among the group’s top priorities: Senate Bill 129, known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which would require government to show a compelling interest for why its policy should override an individual’s religious freedom. The bill uses similar language as federal legislation that Congress passed in 1993 and has since been adopted in more than 20 states.

Supporters cast it as a new line of defense to protect people of any religion from interference. Opponents warn it’s a discriminatory end run on the First Amendment that could allow business owners to cite religious beliefs to deny people service — and, in particular, gays and lesbians.

Robert White, the board’s executive director, rebutted that charge Tuesday: “We have no desire to discriminate against anybody,” he said.

But there are at least seven other active bills in the Legislature proposing some type of religious liberty protection, including one, Senate Bill 284, that would allow religious nonprofit organizations to opt out of serving gay couples or follow government anti-discrimination requirements.

Opponents, who held two separate press conferences also on Tuesday, said they have had enough. The bills, they said, had nothing to do with protecting religious views but instead would in effect legalize discrimination statewide. One group, Georgia Republicans for the Future, said millennials like themselves did not view sexual orientation or gender identity as a threat and said pursuit of the bills hurt the party’s brand. The other group included faith leaders from across metro Atlanta.

“This legislation is like sending a bazooka after a fly,” said Rabbi Joshua Heller, whose Sandy Springs synagogue is one of the largest in Georgia.

Concerns over the bills have also led to visible efforts among the state’s corporate leaders, including Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines and Home Depot, to publicly oppose religious liberty efforts. Some studies have estimated that Georgia would lose at least $600 million in convention and business travel.

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