- (Photo: Serge Yurovsky)
A bill introduced to the Georgia legislature regarding religious freedom has apparently been derailed due to a controversy over a similar bill in Arizona.
House Bill 1023, also called the "Preservation of Religious Freedom Act," would essentially provide citizens of Georgia with the same religious freedom protections provided by the federal Religious Freedom Protection Act. RFRA was passed in 1993 with a unanimous vote in the House and a 97-3 vote in the Senate and was signed by President Bill Clinton.
RFRA says that for the government to deny religious freedom, the government must show that it has a good reason for doing so and there is no way to avoid doing so. Plus, laws that are generally applicable (apply to all faiths) must provide religious exemptions when that can be done without placing too great a burden on the state. The Supreme Court ruled, however, that RFRA does not apply to state law, so many states have passed their own RFRA laws. H.B. 1023 would do that for Georgia.
The bill is not expected to survive according to Georgia House Democratic Caucus spokeswoman Emily Oh.
"House Bill 1023 has currently been read for the second time; however, because we have passed our 30th legislative day, the bill will remain in committee to 'die' unless it is attached to a Senate bill," said Oh to The Christian Post.
H.B. 1023 was sponsored by Republican Representative Sam Teasley, who told The Christian Post in an interview on Tuesday that his bill's future was "unclear."
Opponents of the Arizona bill, which would have clarified the original intent of RFRA for Arizona, claimed the bill would have allowed business owners to deny gays access to public accomodations. A Christian Post analysis of the bill concluded that is not true. A group of 11 law professors, both liberal and conservative, who specialize in religious freedom came to the same conclusion.
"Some major corporations in Georgia (Delta, Coca-Cola and Home Depot) reacted to media reports about the Arizona measure and came out against the Georgia measure, seemingly without reading the Georgia measure," said Teasley.
"However, many leaders within state government understand its importance and there is a strong desire to provide this added protection of our citizens' first freedom."
H.B. 1023 defined a "person" as "an individual, corporation, partnership, firm, business trust, joint-stock company, association, syndicate, group, pool, joint venture, and any other unincorporated association or group." It also defined "exercise of religion" as including "the right to act or refuse to act in a manner substantially motivated by a sincerely held religious tenet or belief whether or not the exercise is compulsory or a central part or requirement of the person's religious tenets or beliefs."
In an opinion piece published by CNN last month, Democratic Rep. Stacey Abrams and Atlanta-based conservative communications strategist James Richardson pejoratively compared the bill to Jim Crow, as some opponents did with the Arizona bill.
"The measure, whose fringe supporters contend is couched in the First Amendment, would provide a legal avenue for business operators to ignore existing local nondiscrimination protections that even 'indirectly inhibit' the 'free exercise' of their faith," wrote Abrams and Richardson.
"Like the controversial Arizona bill, this broadly written proposal has profound implications -- not only for the aggrieved minority it would directly affect but also for the social reputation of the state at large. Those implications will permanently stain us, cementing the lasting ignominy of Jim Crow."
In an op-ed for Peach Pundit, Chandler Epp argues that opponents of the bill are misrepresenting what the bill does.
"What the proposed act does mention is the free exercise of religion. Its passage would bring Georgia in line with 31 other states and the federal government in requiring the state to consider religious belief as a legitimate, arguable legal defense in court. Georgia today is in the minority of states whose citizens have less religious freedom than federal prison inmates," he wrote.
Teasley told CP that his bill and the vetoed Arizona legislation "are different", stressing the comparison between the federal RFRA and the text of H.B. 1023.
"Georgia citizens do not have this protection because it is not currently state law and H.B. 1023's operative language is precisely word for word the RFRA that passed in 1993," said Teasley.
Georgia is one of several states in recent months that have considered bills on defining religious freedom. Others include Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, and Utah.