Georgia's battle over religious freedom — like much of politics — comes down to one question: Whose lives matter?
That is to say, Whose lives are worth fighting for and prioritizing? Whose lives deserve dignity and respect, and who can be left to scrape by?
Republican Governor Nathan Deal announced Monday, March 28th, that he intends to veto HB 757, the "Free Exercise Protection Act" — a monster mash-up of many different "religious freedom" bills — which passed in Georgia just last week. The move has seemingly positioned Deal as the more forward-minded antithesis to North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, who recently signed into law a "religious freedom" bill that goes as far as to police restrooms in a violent affront to transgender people.
Deal's decision is largely viewed as a shrewd response to threats of divestment from the business community, including the much-heralded film industry. However, Deal pushed against this in his press statement on the decision to veto, saying "I do not respond well to insults or threats." In his statement, Deal didn't leverage the business issue, nor did he bother to feign concern for civil rights. His remarks boiled down to this: Queers aren't protected by law in Georgia, so they aren't a threat.
"The cases being cited from other states occurred because those state[s] had passed statutes that specifically protected their citizens from adverse actions based on their sexual orientation. Georgia has no such statutes," Deal said in the statement.
Citing the highly publicized cases of a photography company in New Mexico and a bakery in Colorado that refused to provide services for same-sex weddings, Deal noted that both those lawsuits rested on anti-discrimination laws in those states. Georgia has none. In fact, it is one of only a handful of states without any public accommodations protections, without any civil rights laws whatsoever. Therefore, Deal concluded, religious organizations in Georgia are already free to discriminate against LGBTQ people, and don't need a new law to reinforce that freedom.
There have been over 100 religious freedom bills across thirty-one states so far this year. These bills touch on health care, family recognition, provision of services, school participation, and public accommodations.
Across Southern states, bills related to marriage have garnered some of the most traction. In Georgia, these includes the Pastor Protection Act (PPA), which would "protect" clergy from having to officiate same-sex weddings, although this is already protected under the First Amendment. Then there's the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) — different versions have mirrored federal language to protect a sincerely held belief in "traditional marriage," as proponents often call it.
The "compromise" HB 757 that passed out of both the House and Senate in Georgia came out of late night maneuvers during the last few days of the legislative session.
"I applaud all who have been involved in bringing Pastor Protection, First Amendment Defense Act, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act together. All this gives us the Free Exercise Protection Act," Republican State Senator, and the bill's sponsor, Greg Kirk said during the floor debate on HB 757.
The franken-bill indeed includes provisions from multiple "religious freedom" bills, with new language that was never vetted in committee and was introduced just before the bill was taken up for debate.
Here's the breakdown of HB 757, the so-called "Free Exercise Protection Act":
- Section 2 allows clergy to opt out of officiating any wedding, and also allows folks to attend or not attend weddings at their discretion
- Section 3 prohibits businesses from being required to operate on Saturday or Sunday
- Section 4 protects faith-based organizations from having their property used for "an event which is objectionable;" or from providing any services (social, educational, or charitable) that violate a "sincerely held religious belief"
- Section 5 allows discrimination in employment by faith-based organizations
- Section 6 states that the government "shall not substantially burden" a person, business, or organization's practice of religion, a provision commonly referred to as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)
Let's be clear: This bill broadly defines "faith-based organization" as any church, religious school, or religious non-profit; establishes broad protections for individuals, businesses, and organizations to challenge any laws or ordinances that they disagree with; and explicitly permits faith-based organizations to discriminate in employment practices, as well as the provision of services.
Yet repeatedly, this bill was hailed as a "compromise" by proponents of the measures in the Georgia House and Senate.
"If…we were just delivered this bill to begin with, right off, I don't believe anyone would be concerned, because this is a good bill. This is a good compromise and this gets us exactly to where we need to be, in my opinion," Dustin Hightower, an up-and-coming Republican House member, said during the debate.
Originally, HB 757 was backed by the Republican Speaker of the House, David Ralston, as a limited measure to reiterate existing protection for clergy, and brought little objection from the LGBTQ community. That version passed unanimously out of the House.
Once HB 756 was in the Senate, other "religious freedom" measures were tacked on — not surprising, given that some of the most vocal proponents of these bills reside in the Senate.
It is important to note that the most egregious aspects of this legislation, and similar proposals the Georgia legislature considered, extend well beyond the queer community.
Protections for "sincerely held beliefs," or against anything considered "objectionable" by persons or organizations of faith, have broad implications for religious minorities, women, and many others who seek health care, housing, or employment.
"It's much broader than marriage, it's much broader than LGBT people in Georgia," said Maggie Garrett, the Legislative Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in an interview.
"That's a pretty big concern, but we have other concerns as well," Garrett said.
Protect Thy Neighbor, a project of Americans United, includes in these concerns the impacts on access to birth control following the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Supreme Court decision. That decision rested on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and allows businesses to opt-out of the birth control mandates of the Affordable Care Act (commonly referred to as Obamacare), precisely because it conflicts with their "sincerely held religious belief."
Garrett also spoke about discrimination in employment.
"HB 757…has that employment discrimination piece. I feel like people have not really talked about [that piece] much, because that is… actually tied to a 2001 case in Georgia. It's called Bellmore vs. United Methodist [Children's] Home," Garrett said.
United Methodist Children's Home was contracted by the state to provide residential foster care services for approximately 70 children. Alan Yorker applied for a position as a psychotherapist, but the employment interview abruptly ended and he was informed, "We don't hire people of your faith." (Yorker is Jewish).
Another employee was dismissed for expressing views in support of homosexuality, contravening the views of the organization. Additionally, the children were required to attend Methodist prayer services, and placed in conversion therapy if they showed signs of being queer.
There was a separate constitutional amendment introduced in the Georgia legislature this year — SR 388 — that would have allowed religious organizations like the United Methodist Children's Home to directly receive government funds for services they provide. That bill passed out of the Senate along party lines, 39 to 17, but was held up in committee in the House.
"When we talk about taxpayer-funded discrimination in employment, it could be something as in your face as that," Garrett said, adding that the employment section of HB 757 could cover, "all sorts of ways that people live their life, that they couldn't get a taxpayer-funded job because it doesn't square with whatever organization happened to get the money."
With Governor Deal's impending veto, HB 757 is dead for the year. A smaller religious freedom bill, SB 309, protecting the religious expression of student athletes by threatening school funding, will likely receive the Governor's support.
Republican State Senator Josh McKoon, a key force behind Georgia's religious freedom bills, said in a radio interview shortly after the Governor's announcement that, "I fully expect that we will be back next year debating this topic again." Indeed, this is the third year that the religious freedom battle has raged under Georgia's Gold Dome.
So another year will pass that LGBTQ folks, women, religious minorities, and others can expect equal access to taxpayer funded services — like domestic violence shelters and subsidized health care — but the fight will continue to devalue those lives in favor of expanding protections for an already powerful class of people.