The Battle for Religious Freedom in Georgia

Earlier this year Georgia Senator Marty Harbin introduced SB 233, a state copy of the federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act. It’s pretty widely accepted that a “clean” RFRA (just the 1993 federal RFRA language, without the additional provisions included in the 2016 bill that was vetoed by Governor Deal) would pass the Georgia General Assembly and be sent to the Governor’s desk. In fact, Nathan Deal has said in the past year, he would sign a clean RFRA bill. But now the Governor has reneged on RFRA, and many of his supporters in the Senate are trying to make sure RFRA never gets a vote.

There are a number of arguments for passing RFRA, such as the one laid out here by Resurgent contributor Dave Bishop. Many would even argue that RFRA does not go far enough to protect religious liberties, but it is certainly a necessary step in the right direction. I reached out to Senator Harbin, and he had this to say about RFRA.

“The Religious Freedom Restoration Act merely raises the levels of religious freedom for Georgia Citizens, giving them the same religious freedom protections as inmates in a Federal prison.

The history of RFRA begins in 1993 when this legislation was passed into law by the US congress, with only 3 dissenting votes out of 535 lawmakers. President Bill Clinton signed it into law. For four years, Americans enjoyed the same level of protection for religion that is enjoyed by free speech, the press, and the right to peaceably assemble. This level of protection is offered for these other freedoms at both the state and federal levels.

However, in 1997, the US Supreme Court ruled that RFRA would have to be enacted by individual states for it to be applicable at the state level. Since that time, 21 states, ranging from deep red to deep blue, have enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, currently labeled SB 233 in Georgia.

The legislation merely requires that the government show a compelling government interest before infringing on someone’s freedom of religion. It also requires the government, once it has proven it needs to invade someone’s religion, to do so in the least invasive way possible.

This is simple, yet crucial legislation. And we are working hard to enact it this year in Georgia.

Governor Nathan Deal voted for this bill in 1993 in the US congress. However, he has declined to support the exact same bill for the state of Georgia. The Lieutenant Governor, Casey Cagle, assigned RFRA to Rules, where Chairman Jeff Mullis refused to allow it a hearing.

We will continue to work to pass this important legislation for the citizens of Georgia.”

Unfortunately the delay tactics have done enough to prevent RFRA from making it to the Governor’s desk in 2017. Even if it were to clear the Senate, it is too late to send the bill to the House to pass it before the session ends. However, it is important that RFRA pass the Senate in this session for several reasons.

First, it would clear an important hurdle for 2018, and put RFRA near the front of the line for the next legislative session.

Second, it would send a message to gubernatorial candidates that we are serious about RFRA. There will be a lot of campaigning done between now and January 2018, and passing RFRA through the Senate would ensure that RFRA is a topic of discussion in the Republican primary.

Chairman Mullis should give RFRA a fair hearing instead of allowing it to be pigeon-holed in his committee. These are tactics we would expect from Harry Reid, not Georgia Republicans. If you would like to encourage Chairman Mullis to give RFRA a hearing, you can email him at [email protected] or call his office at 404-656-0057.

About the author

Sam Thomas

Sam is a youth minister, writer, political activist, and an avid fly fisherman. He coaches debate at Clark Atlanta University where he was named the 2016-17 Georgia Parliamentary Debate Coach of the Year.

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