Georgia Religious Freedom Bill Summary

HB 837 uses new language to achieve the same result as last year’s SB 129, a so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” bill that was appropriately killed after Indiana experienced national opposition, business outcry, and threats of boycotts for passing its state RFRA bill. The newly proposed HB 837 would apply the national RFRA to Georgia and would strip state officials of sovereign immunity protections if they interfere with a person’s sincerely held religious beliefs, even if that interference comes from a law that applies to everyone. The bill suffers from all the same flaws as Indiana’s bill, including allowing businesses and individuals to use religion to openly discriminate.

HB 816, the so-called “Georgia Student Religious Liberties Act of 2016,” begins by restating what is already required by the Constitution, that students be allowed to express their personal religious beliefs free from discrimination and pray “to the same extent that students may engage in nonreligious activities or expression.” No one objects to this. The bill then takes a sharp turn toward fostering religious privilege by forcing public schools to allow students to promote their personal religious beliefs at school-sponsored events. The legislators are well aware, of course, that a school forum will be dominated by students from the Christian majority while students who hold minority religious beliefs or practice no religion at all will be effectively silenced. The bill contemplates requiring student speakers at all football games and other athletic events, during morning announcements, at assemblies and pep rallies, and at graduation.

HB 757 purports to solve a problem that doesn’t exist: it decrees that no minister of the gospel shall be required to solemnize any marriage in violation of his or her right to free exercise of religion. That, of course, has always been the case. Church leaders can discriminate against whomever they wish when choosing to perform marriage ceremonies. Only the state must treat all legal marriages equally.

The bill goes on, however, to grant special status to those who worship on Saturday and Sunday, as traditional religious “rest days,” by making it illegal for a county or municipality to require a business to operate on either of those days. This is another clear example of legislating Judeo-Christian privilege. Never mind that Friday is the “day of rest” for many Muslims and for those of the Bahá'í Faith, while other minority religions observe rest days based on lunar cycles (Buddhists, Cherokees) or seasonal changes (Wiccans).

Finally, HB 757 legalizes discrimination by religious organizations. It allows them to refuse to let a person rent or otherwise use property “for purposes which are objectionable to such religious organization.” Among other problems, this law would legalize housing discrimination by religious organizations against gay families, religious minorities, and the nonreligious.

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