Editorial: Religious liberty is a legislative zombie that won't die
GOP lawmakers, candidates push proposal that could hurt state economy
The United States Supreme Court building in Washington. - photo by Associated Press

A staple of horror movies popular around Halloween is the ubiquitous “monster that won’t die.” Be they zombies, Dracula, Freddy Krueger, killers in hockey masks or Godzilla, the demons of our imagination never succumb to mortal fate, as least as long as another sequel is in the offing.

Sometimes, bad ideas by politicians stalk the innocent wearing the same ghoulish pallor of the undead, springing back to life whenever we think the coast is clear. One such Walking Dead issue is a religious liberty proposal that some think we can’t live with and others believe we can’t live without, and waits in the bushes for another victim.

The Georgia legislature passed such a law in 2016, stating no individual or business would be forced to cater to the needs of others if doing so clashed with their religious beliefs. Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed it, much to the chagrin of social conservatives, over fears it would make the state appear unwelcoming to other views and lifestyles, which could deter companies from locating operations and jobs here. 

Similar measures in Indiana and North Carolina had that effect, the latter over gender-specific bathrooms that led the NBA to move its All-Star Game and relocation of other lucrative events until it was repealed. Deal wisely knew any positive effects the bill might have would be offset by the damage it could cause, and his office now warns that reviving it could have negative consequences.

Nevertheless, legislators plan to reintroduce such a bill in next year’s session, and the four Republican candidates for governor have pledged to support it. Which is no surprise; nothing summons scary ideas back from the grave like a political campaign in search of red meat.

Before one debates the validity of such a bill and its potential impact, it’s worth asking: What is the goal? If it’s to assure Georgians won’t have to compromise their beliefs, the burden of proof should be to show that isn’t already the case. Is religious liberty truly under siege? Or is this a solution in search of a problem, played only to rouse election-year emotions?

For instance, the 2016 law Deal vetoed said clergy members shouldn’t be forced to perform a same-sex marriage. But in the real world, what same-sex couple is going to seek out a pastor who is hostile to their union?

But if the unspoken goal of such a law is to imply same-sex couples and those who support them aren’t welcome in Georgia, beware the fallout that may bring. 

Metro Atlanta is currently in the mix of cities bidding to house a new headquarters for online retail goliath Amazon, which could bring 50,000 jobs and huge revenue potential. Meanwhile, the movie and television industry has made Georgia its second home, pumping some $7 billion into the state’s economy, thanks to the state’s generous tax incentives and mix of filming locations and cottage industries.

Both Seattle-based Amazon and Hollywood filmmakers are insistent on embracing diversity, and any law perceived as being discriminatory — and perception is enough — could jeopardize both economic windfalls. Is such a law vital enough to take on that risk?

In truth, Americans have full and unrestricted right to practice their faiths; no one is closing churches or persecuting people for their beliefs, as experienced by Coptic Christians in the Middle East and Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Some may feel persecuted simply because a store greeter says “Happy Holidays” or schools celebrate “winter holidays” rather than Christmas, but those hardly constitute attacks on the faith. Rather it shows that all beliefs are supported by a pluralistic society that doesn’t pit one against the other.

Yet there are some legitimate cases that involve how far religious freedom can extend. In one, retailer Hobby Lobby objected to a mandate to provide birth control through the Affordable Care Act and took its case to the Supreme Court, which ruled  5-to-4 in its favor. 

Another case pending a high court ruling is over a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. At the crux of the issue is whether anti-discrimination laws take precedence over people’s right to their beliefs and whether a business can choose its customers.

These are worthy debates that will, and should be, settled by applying the first and most important law of the land: the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...”

The First Amendment addresses faith in two ways: The nation will not endorse one religion over others, as do theocracies such as Iran, and Americans are free to worship as they choose without government interference. Government, in other words, is out of the faith business entirely. Thus, those 16 words can guide justices to determine where the law falls when liberty and faith intersect.

And even if one doesn’t think that’s enough, there is a federal law on the books: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. It requires government to prove a “compelling governmental interest” before it interferes with one’s exercise of religion, yet specifically bans any kind of discrimination.

Additional state laws piled on top of both the Constitution and a federal statute are both unnecessary and short-sighted, and are aimed to win votes, not right a clear wrong. When religious freedom is threatened and individual liberty collides with anti-discrimination laws, the First Amendment will light the way. Religious freedom bills are little more than a bumper sticker or social media post declaring the state’s stance, in big letters, as “Intolerance.”

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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