Pages

Georgia is poised to pass the nation’s harshest “religious freedom” law, allowing discrimination, judicial obstruction, and even domestic violence

Georgia is poised to pass the nation’s harshest “religious freedom” law, allowing discrimination, judicial obstruction, and even domestic violence. Yet while the bill is far worse than Arizona’s notorious “Turn the Gays Away” bill, it’s attracted far less attention from national advocacy groups and businesses.
The bill, the “Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” is one of a raft of similar bills (RFRAs, for short) wending their way through state legislatures across the country. The bills are part of the backlash against same-sex marriage, but they go much farther than that. Like the Hobby Lobby decision, which allows closely-held corporations to opt out of part of Obamacare, these laws carve out exemptions to all kinds of laws if a person (or corporation) offers a religious reason for not obeying them.
For example? Restaurants could refuse to serve gay or interracial couples, city clerks could refuse to marry interfaith couples, hotels could keep out Jews, housing developments could keep out black people (Genesis 9:18-27), pharmacies could refuse to dispense birth control, banquet halls could turn away gay weddings, schools could specifically allow anti-gay bullying, and employers could fire anyone for any “religious” reason.
The national movement to pass these laws is well-funded and well-coordinated; most of the laws are written by the same handful of conservative legal hacks in Washington, working for organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom and Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, both of which have had a hand in the Georgia bill.
Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said in an interview with The Daily Beast that “in the last two years, there have been 35 bills introduced around the country to establish or expand a RFRA. And there have been over 80 bills filed that specifically allow for discrimination against gay and trans communities.”
As worrisome as these laws are, however, Georgia’s is worse than most.  
First, the language is the strictest possible. As with other RFRAs, Georgia’s act says that the government cannot “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” without a “compelling governmental interest” and the “least restrictive means of furthering” that interest. This is the classic three-prong test that was at issue inHobby Lobby, and is considered extremely difficult to meet.
Georgia’s RFRA also specifies that “exercise of religion” can be just about any “practice or observance of religion, whether or not compelled by or central to a system of religious belief.”
In other words, if I say it’s my religious exercise, it is.
Second, the Senate version of the bill was passed by its sponsor, State Senator Josh McKoon, with all kinds of shenanigans. He rammed it through the judiciary committee, which he chairs, while opposition members were in the bathroom.
Then, on dubious procedural grounds, he refused an amendment by a fellow Republican that would have specified that the “religious freedom” could not be used to discriminate against others.
Ironically, says Graham, Georgia doesn’t have that many protections for LGBT people in the first place.
“This is a preemptive strike against the LGBT community,” he says. “If this bill is not intended to allow discrimination, why were its sponsors so adamant about refusing to say so?”
McKoon’s bill passed the Republican-dominated State Senate on March 5, and now heads to the State House, where Republicans have a 2:1 advantage over Democrats, and where representatives have shelved their own version of the bill to try to pass McKoon’s version.
The combination of these factors has led to a curious result: a law so strict that it will lead to a host of unintended consequences—and has even led some Republicans to oppose it.