Georgia ‘religious liberty’ bill proposed that matches federal law

Kemp has said he would accept identical federal protections
State Sen. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, points to a chart about religious freedoms in Georgia during a press conference where he promoted a bill seeking greater legal protections for religious Georgia residents. Opponents say the legislation could be used to justify discrimination. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: NATRICE MILLER

Credit: NATRICE MILLER

State Sen. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, points to a chart about religious freedoms in Georgia during a press conference where he promoted a bill seeking greater legal protections for religious Georgia residents. Opponents say the legislation could be used to justify discrimination. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com)

A bill introduced Tuesday calls for greater legal protections for religious Georgia residents, a proposal that gay rights advocates say could be used to justify discrimination.

The measure by Republican state Sen. Ed Setzler, who previously sponsored Georgia’s anti-abortion law, would limit the state government’s ability to pass or enforce laws that conflict with religious beliefs.

He said religious freedoms are fundamental rights that need to be secured.

“Every Georgian should be free to worship and exercise their faith without unfair federal, state or local government intrusion,” said Setzler, who represents the Acworth area. “We cant ignore this any longer. It’s time to finally deal with this once and for all.”

The legislation, Senate Bill 180, might have a better chance of passing the Georgia General Assembly than in the past because it complies with Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s criteria.

Kemp said during his 2018 campaign for governor that he would only sign a “mirror image” of the federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act passed in 1993 and apply it to state law. Setzler’s bill closely resembles the federal law. The governor’s office doesn’t comment on pending legislation, a spokesman said Wednesday.

Critics of the legislation fear that it could empower adoption agencies and businesses who refuse to serve gay couples.

“While we can all agree that freedom of religion is a cornerstone of our beliefs, it is imperative that in an effort to protect religion that we do not create a license to discriminate,” said Jeff Graham of Georgia Equality, a gay rights organization.

Georgia doesn’t have a law protecting people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation.

Seven years ago, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a religious liberty bill after dozens of companies such as Apple, Time Warner and the Walt Disney Co. threatened boycotts. He said at the time that he viewed it as discriminatory.

Since then, bills introduced in Georgia included the federal language along with additional provisions to permit plaintiffs in lawsuits against the government to recover their legal costs, and to allow judges to order governments to change laws or practices that infringe on religious beliefs.

Cole Muzio, president of the conservative group Frontline Policy Action, said religious liberty protections in other states haven’t resulted in discrimination.

“We know that many will proliferate misinformation and downright lies to create mass hysteria under the Gold Dome,” Muzio said. “But before anyone believes the warnings of discrimination and economic calamity spewed by the opposition, simply look at the 34 other states who have RFRA (Religious Freedom and Restoration Act) for the undeniable truth.”

In a case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court last year, the court ruled that a student at Georgia Gwinnett College could pursue a lawsuit challenging his school’s speech restrictions that required him to express his religious views in campus free-speech zones.

Setzler said if Georgia previously had a religious liberty law, the student could have cited his faith rather than having to rely on his free speech rights.

This year’s religious liberty bill is the latest proposal that could ignite heated partisan battles in Georgia after Republican legislative leaders resisted efforts on controversial issues such as new limits on abortion and creating a new city of Buckhead.

Lawmakers have introduced measures to block schools from requiring coronavirus vaccines, impose mandatory minimum prison sentences, ban homeless camps and restrict surgeries for transgender youth.

The state Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that would place a statue of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a nominee of Republican President George H.W. Bush, at the state Capitol.

Opponents of the idea criticized rulings by Thomas on civil rights and abortion, as well as his wife’s support of Republican President Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election.

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