‘Religious liberty’ fight returns to Georgia Capitol

Legislation reigniting the fight over religious freedom has been filed in the Georgia Senate, but Gov. Nathan Deal’s office made it clear Tuesday it will meet the same fate as its precesessor a year ago if it passes.

Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, on Tuesday filed Senate Bill 233, which stops far short of the wide-ranging "religious liberty" bill that Deal vetoed in 2016. Harbin's bill says that the language in the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act would also apply in Georgia.

Supporters say Harbin’s bill is needed because the Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the federal law, passed under a Democratic-controlled Congress and signed by a Democratic president, only restricts the federal government’s ability to intrude on an individual’s religious freedom. Dozens of states have since passed their own versions to cover actions by state governments.

But Chris Riley, Deal’s chief of staff, is unmoved.

“Everything that needs to be said on this issue was said in the veto statement last March,” Riley said.

Harbin did not respond to requests for comment.

In his 2016 veto message, Deal said, “Our actions on HB 757 are not just about protecting the faith-based community or providing a business friendly climate for job growth in Georgia. This is about the character of our state and the character of its people.”

Deal faced tremendous pressure last year from the business community and gay rights organizations that said the bill would lead to discrimination, as well as from fellow Republicans and religious conservatives who said their rights and way of life were under siege from secularists who demanded they leave their faith at home.

In one short sentence, Harbin’s bill says Georgia should apply in similar fashion the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The federal statutes requires the government to prove a “compelling governmental interest” before it interferes with a person’s exercise of religion.

Harbin has the signatures of 20 Republican senators as co-sponsors. Missing, however, are any Senate leaders. Still, Harbin is likely to win some converts because the bill is more narrow than the 2016 measurewhich would have also allowed faith-based organizations to deny services to those who violate their "sincerely held religious belief" and preserved their right to fire employees who aren't in accord with those beliefs.

"This bill is very narrowly tailored," said Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, who has long been the public face of the religious liberty movement in the Statehouse. "I would hope it would get the respect of a committee hearing and move forward in the process."

Some argue that the federal bill was developed not to protect dominant religions from having to honor practices with which they disagreed, but to protect Native Americans’ use of peyote in religious ceremonies and that the recent efforts to pass “religious liberty” bills in Georgia stem from the legalization of gay marriage.

Recent public opinion polling indicates that Georgians remain split on the issue. A January Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll found 44 percent of Georgia voters did not want lawmakers to take up the issue again this year. Forty-percent supported the effort. The difference is just within the poll's margin of error.

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said Harbin’s bill may seem simple, but because Georgia offers no LGBT civil rights protections, it could be used to discriminate.

“That is why we support comprehensive and inclusive protections that would protect people of faith, members of the LGBT community and others equally under the law,” Graham said.

Business groups quickly spoke out Tuesday against Harbin’s bill.

“Gov. Deal clearly stated in his veto statement last year why this type of legislation was already a constitutional right, unnecessary and would distract from our strong performance in creating new jobs in our state,” Katie Kirkpatrick, chief policy officer of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, and David Raynor, director of public policy at the Georgia Chamber, said in a joint statement.

There is no "new evidence to suggest this legislation is needed to strengthen a right guaranteed by our constitution," they said, but noted that plenty of evidence exists to show the damage these types of bills can do to a state's economy. North Carolina and other states have seen the loss of concerts, sporting events and, in some cases, jobs after passing legislation deemed discriminatory.

Mike Griffin, public affairs director for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, said he’s pleased to see the bill, which provides “very, very modest protections.”

“We believe Georgians are deserving of the same kind of protection that other states are afforded through this kind of legislation,” Griffin said.

Staff writer Kristina Torres contributed.