There is an old adage warning those who seek civil discourse to avoid the discussion of politics or religion in social situations.
Civility has never been a priority at the Georgia General Assembly, so it’s no surprise that the issue being debated with the most passion this legislative session combines both those inflammatory topics.
The effort to create a “religious liberty” law in the state has resulted in heated exchanges of legal opinions, hypothetical situations and religious fervor, the most inflammatory of which were the comments made last week by former state attorney general Mike Bowers.
Now in private practice and speaking on behalf of the state’s largest advocacy group for the gay and lesbian community, Bowers warned that passage of a religious liberty bill could open the door to state-sanctioned discrimination, as well as a host of other evils.
Not lost in the debate was the irony of Bowers speaking out on behalf of gays and lesbians, given the fact that when serving as attorney general he garnered national headlines for his strong support of Georgia’s sodomy laws, and once refused a promised position to a potential employee after discovering she was gay.
While much of what Bowers offered falls into the category of political hyperbole rooted in the broadest possible reading of “what if” scenarios, there are elements of his argument that should not be overlooked. Bowers warned that empowering the people of the state with special protection for individual religious liberties could result in an abuses by those who would use their beliefs to justify discrimination against specific groups of people.
“The obvious unstated purpose of the proposed (law) is to authorize discrimination against disfavored groups,” Bowers wrote.
Supporters of the legislation were quick to counter, pointing out that the bill allows the courts to determine when there is an overriding public interest that should supersede personal religious convictions. They also pointed out that the proposal mirrors an existing federal law that has been in place since 1993, that such laws now exist in some 31 other states, and that there has not been rampant discrimination against any groups of people as a result.
The debate has divided lawyers, politicians and religious leaders alike. Some in the faith community applaud the effort; some decry it. Some elected officials sing its praises; others fear its potential. One group of legal scholars supports the effort; another opposes it. The speaker of the state House isn’t sure it’s needed; the governor has given it support. Many leaders in the business community are opposed.
It’s not hard to understand the motivation behind such legislation. We have all heard the stories of private business owners and nonprofit groups that refused to provide services of one sort or another because of their personal religious beliefs, only to have the courts tell them they must do so. Examples include the photographer who refused to shoot a gay wedding; the baker who wouldn’t do a wedding cake for a same-sex couple; the faith-based adoption agencies that closed down rather than allow same-sex couples to adopt children.
It is no coincidence that the recent flurry of support for religious liberty laws across the nation comes at the same time the controversy over same-sex marriages is at its peak, as lawmakers try to pit support for religious rights against gender rights. The firing of Atlanta’s fire chief after he authored a book in which he condemned homosexuality based on his personal religious beliefs has added fuel to the fire in Georgia.
At first blush, it’s easy to jump on the bandwagon of support, to state with passion the position that no one should be forced by the courts to do something that violates the tenets of their religious beliefs. But simplistic solutions to complex problems are seldom effective, and there’s no reason to believe that a new religious liberty law for Georgia would be an exception to that rule.
Those who support such legislation have to remember that, if approved, it will apply not just to the beliefs of Christians but to those of all faiths, a position that cannot be ignored given the volatile and often violent confrontations occurring around the world in the name of religion.
We do not think the intent of the legislation is to legalize discrimination against specific groups, but we see how that may be an unintended consequence given the predisposition of individual judges.
We do think the effort is more about politics that religion, a way for conservatives to garner support from the religious right. Remember that it offers no guarantee that religious liberty will be upheld in the courts, but simply sets the stage for judicial decision-making. The courts can still rule that an issue of public concern carries more weight than individual beliefs.
The right to religious liberty is already assured to each of us, through both the U.S. and Georgia constitutions. Those documents have served us well for centuries.
The attempt to gain passage for a new religious liberty law is meant as a way of reinforcing those rights, but could muddy the waters even more when the courts are asked to decide on issues of religious faith vs public good.
More than anything, we wonder at the potential for the legislation to do more harm than good, and question what purpose it will serve beyond sending a political message. Adding another layer of legal debate to freedoms already guaranteed in the Constitution may do more to confuse than improve.
Even a well-intentioned effort can have unintended negative consequences, which we fear will be the case if the pending House and Senate bills ultimately are approved as state law.