Georgia State Legislature’s Revival of “Religious Freedom” Legislation Raise Civil Rights Concerns

A new push for stronger religious protections in Georgia has revived one of the most hotly debated Gold Dome measures, renewed calls for a state-level anti-discrimination law.

State Senator Ed Setzler, an Acworth Republican who supported the 2019 state abortion law, has introduced legislation that would extend federal protections passed in 1993 to the state and local levels, which he says would protect religious Georgians from unfair government interference.

His bill is a stripped-down version of a bill vetoed by former Republican Gov. Nathan Deal in 2016 after the US Supreme Court issued a ruling on same-sex marriage after big corporations threatened to boycott Georgia.

“The intent is to do something that’s very simple and very conventional and shouldn’t be controversial for legal reasons — to take the same protections that we have at the federal level and apply them in state and local governments,” he said Setzler at a press conference press conference this week.

As a motivation for rekindling the debate on whether stronger religious protections are needed in Georgia, Setzler cited pandemic-era tensions between public health restrictions and people’s ability to attend religious services.

At least two dozen Republican senators have signed the bill. Gov. Brian Kemp has said in the past he would sign a bill consistent with federal law, but it’s unclear if he will stick to the schedule. A spokesman for the governor’s office declined to comment Wednesday, pending legislation.

Setzler’s proposal was immediately met with concerns that it would justify discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community in particular. It also remains to be seen how the business community, which was instrumental in blocking the 2016 law, will react.

“While we all agree that religious freedom is a cornerstone of our faith, it is imperative that we do not create a license for discrimination in an effort to protect religion,” said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, which is committed campaigning on behalf of LGBTQ Georgians.

Georgia is one of only three states that lack a comprehensive civil rights law, Graham said. That’s why he made a counter-proposal: enacting nationwide non-discrimination protections for “all Georgians who fear discrimination because of their personality, their love, or their prayers.”

An antidiscrimination bill had not been tabled in the Senate as of Wednesday, but enforcing those protections at the state level has been a priority in the past, said Senator Elena Parent, a Democrat from Atlanta.

Parent said passing a religious freedom law without an anti-discrimination law would “open the door to many types of discrimination on ‘religious grounds’.”

Setzler said he needed to see the details of an anti-discrimination law to comment fully, but expressed skepticism about the need. He attributed the failure of the 2016 measure to attempts at the time to specifically exclude certain people or situations.

“I think the erroneous assumption that the RFRA’s balancing test is insufficient stems from the belief that it will somehow lead to a perverse ending,” he said Wednesday. “RFRA in this case does not lead to a guaranteed result for either party.”

When asked specifically whether his proposal would protect a faith-based adoption agency that refused to work with same-sex couples, he said that was a matter for the courts.

Local governments can also issue regulations that he believes would provide better protection against discrimination. According to Georgia Equality, 13 cities have enacted such ordinances so far. Opponents, however, say Setzler’s bill could potentially undo those local protections.

“The challenge would be to enact a statewide (RFRA) law without simultaneously enacting statewide nondiscrimination,” said Parent.

Setzler’s bill fuels the partisan culture wars that are flaring up again during an otherwise low-key legislature.

Other Senate proposals would limit physicians’ ability to provide gender-specific care to transgender minors and prevent teachers and others from answering questions from a young person about the child’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Cole Muzio, president of the conservative Frontline Policy Action, praised Setzler’s bill, saying 34 states have passed similar measures over the years. His organization has championed proposals that critics have labeled anti-LGBTQ.

“Religious freedom is a human right that must be protected without delay,” Muzio said in a statement.

At press conferences this week, Setzler brought visual aids to make it clear that religion has only third-class rights compared to other First Amendment guarantees, such as freedom of speech.

He pointed to a Georgia case pending in the US Supreme Court last year in which a Georgia Gwinnett College student was allowed to file a lawsuit against the school on freedom of speech grounds but not religious grounds. School had prevented him from preaching in a free speech zone.

This story was provided by WABE content partner Georgia Recorder.