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‘Religious freedom’ bills give Georgia role in national debate

Legislation moving quickly in the General Assembly puts Georgia squarely in the middle of a national debate about religious freedom and discrimination.

Supporters of separate bills in both the Senate and House claim Georgia needs to act to protect people of any religion from government intrusion on their beliefs. But critics say Senate Bill 377 and House Bill 1023 would open the door for private business owners to cite their religious beliefs in declining to serve people they believe are gay or having premarital sex.

“We support the concept of freedom of religion and certainly people’s right to have their own religious beliefs, but the language in these bills is just so broadly written that it will likely lead to serious and unintended consequences,” said Jeff Graham, the executive director of Georgia Equality, an advocacy organization for the state’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities.

“How do we know the difference between someone who is biased vs. someone who has deeply held religious beliefs?”

States across the country are embroiled in legislative fights on the same issue following a number of cases involving lawsuits against businesses who refused to provide goods or services for gay weddings or gay advocacy groups. A Washington state florist was sued in 2013 for refusing to provide flowers to a gay couple’s wedding. A baker in Colorado and photographer in New Mexico face similar legal fights.

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Lawmakers in Arizona and Kansas are considering “religious freedom” bills that appear designed to protect business owners in their states. Legislators in Tennessee considered one but have dropped attempts to pass it this year.

Now, Rep. Sam Teasley, R-Marietta, has introduced House Bill 1023 and Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, has filed Senate Bill 377. Both said they did not intend to target the gay community, although McKoon acknowledged passage of either bill could help some employers take aim at the federal Affordable Care Act.

“I do think this is another tool in the tool kit of those who are fighting on the Obamacare front — Catholic health institutions who are being asked to provide abortion services, that sort of thing,” McKoon said.

He added: “I don’t feel like the burden should be on the person of faith, whatever their faith is, to justify their practice. I think the burden should be on the government to show why is this governmental rule, regulation or policy so important that it needs to supersede that person’s religious liberty.”

Both men say their bills are based on federal legislation that Congress overwhelmingly passed in 1993 that was signed by President Bill Clinton. It asserts that government has to show a compelling interest on why its policy should override an individual’s religious freedom.

But Congress’ action was later found to only apply in federal cases. Since then, McKoon said, 18 states have adopted their own version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and 11 more states have adopted that legal standard through court decisions.

In no way, Teasley said, does he want to allow, for example, a restaurant owner to turn away gays or openly discriminate against someone.

“That has not been a motivating factor in my decision making,” Teasley said. “I am a man of faith myself, and as I read the teachings in the Bible, it is very clear that we are to treat everyone with dignity and respect.”

Instead, he said, his motivation came down to this: “I am a constitutionalist and I firmly believe the free exercise of religion is something not only the Founders thought was important but something I believe is essential in a free society.”

Neither Teasley nor McKoon indicated they have received complaints from constituents about people of faith being forced to submit to a government rule over their religious objections. Instead, both men gave theoretical examples.

Teasely spoke of protecting Orthodox Jews, for whom postmortem desecration of a body in an autopsy is forbidden, or a case out of Pensacola, Fla., where police stopped Thursday night fellowships at a local church because the picnics were attracting “undesirable elements.”

McKoon, whose bill could reach the Senate floor as soon as Wednesday, said he wanted protections for everyone including a “Sikh who wants to be able to work in food service wearing a turban, and a health inspector comes in and says, ‘you can’t do that.’ ”

But legal observers said despite the sponsors’ good intentions, the reality in Georgia will likely lead to problems.

State voters overwhelmingly supported a 2004 amendment banning gay marriage. Just last year, a married gay couple’s visit to a driver’s licensing office resulted in an assertion that state agencies don’t have to accept same-sex marriage documentation for any purpose, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June that married same-sex couples are entitled to federal benefits.

Randy Kessler, an Atlanta lawyer and past chairman of the American Bar Association’s Family Law Section, said the new legislation as written does not prevent a restaurant owner, for example, from citing religion in not serving a gay couple.

“That would be an interpretation,” Kessler said. “That could easily happen.”

But McKoon said in the 21 years since Congress acted, that hasn’t happened.

“It’s never been used to justify an act of racial discrimination,” McKoon told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “As far as I’m aware, there has been no case on this that has successfully upheld any refusal of service or anything of that nature.”

Georgia Equality’s Graham said HB 1023 as written “could really allow a health care provider to refuse to offer information to someone at risk of contracting HIV”; or to a counselor who refuses to talk to an unmarried girl about premarital sex and contraceptives; or a business owner who refuses to serve a gay or lesbian couple in his restaurant.

The tension comes as some leaders here have embraced what they say is an equality and justice issue — much like the civil rights movement founded in part on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta.

The city’s mayor, Kasim Reed, joined a press conference Monday with Freedom to Marry, a national organization that supports gay marriage, to announce a new $1 million television ad campaign aimed squarely at the South. Dubbed Southerners for the Freedom to Marry, the campaign will highlight prominent politicians and community leaders who back same-sex marriage.

Two blocks away from City Hall is the Capitol. Here, those alarmed by the bills said it will do more harm than good.

“Much like the anti-immigration bill passed a few years ago, it damages our state’s image,” Democratic Party spokesman Michael Smith said. “This kind of legislation turns off legitimate business owners looking to invest in Georgia, while at the same time serving as a dragnet for crazy businesses looking for a safe haven state to discriminate to their heart’s content.”

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