GEORGIA’S RELIGIOUS FREEDOM RESTORATION ACT One of the most controversial bills to be passed by the General Assembly this year was Georgia’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA.) Since Gov. Deal vetoed the bill and similar legislation is likely to be introduced again next year, I wanted to provide you with a summary of RFRA and the issues surrounding it. In a nutshell, the bill would have protected faith-based organizations from having to rent or allow its facility to be used for an event it finds objectionable. These organizations, which include churches, religious schools or associations, would not be required to provide social, educational or charitable services that violate such faith-based organization’s sincerely held religious belief. However, government could enforce the terms of a grant, contract or other agreement. Faith-based organizations also could not be forced to hire or retain an employee whose religious beliefs or practices or lack of either are not in accord with the faith-based organization’s sincerely held religious belief. Finally, it included much of the language found in the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which requires government to prove a “compelling governmental interest” before it interferes with a person’s exercise of religion. This law was signed by then President Bill Clinton. RFRA would have also provided that the law could not be used to allow “discrimination on any grounds prohibited by federal or state law.” The House passed the bill 104-65. The Senate finalized its passage with a 38-17 vote. Deal did not approve of the bill and ended the 2016 RFRA with his signature. In a press conference at the state Capitol, Deal said that the bill did not reflect Georgia’s welcoming image as a state full of “warm, friendly and loving people.” He also warned critics that he doesn’t respond well to threats of payback for rejecting the measure. There were many groups and people who opposed and approved of RFRA. For the past couple of years, some religious leaders have called on lawmakers to pass bills that they believed would protect religious viewpoints and prevent discrimination against religious groups. Thousands of individual religious conservatives expressed their concerns as well; particularly in light of the United States Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage. This sentiment was expressed by members of the House and Senate. “I’m extremely disappointed,” said Senator Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, after the veto. “This bill had been significantly watered down. It did not apply to businesses. I’m just very, very disappointed the governor would veto this modest protection for people of faith.”
On the other side, Georgia’s powerful corporate community and companies including Microsoft, Google, Coca-Cola and Home Depot, opposed the bill and said the state would see a crippling economic impact from such a bill becoming law, under threats of boycotts from both business convention organizers and national gay rights advocates. The Human Rights Campaign called on Hollywood film companies to abandon Georgia if Deal signed the measure, and many issued threats that they would. Each of Atlanta’s pro sports franchises criticized the measure, as did the owner of the Atlanta Falcons. Today, RFRA is not the law in Georgia. But, the issues surrounding its success or failure in the future remain very much alive. Money, business, faith, lifestyle, rights, the 1st Amendment, separation of powers, and the culture of our people blend together to form what will be a political struggle with many battles to come. Where do you stand?