WHEN IT comes to religious liberty, I’m so down.
I’m all for God and Jesus and Allah and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I support the right to practice Santeria and Paganism and that cool whirling dervish dance of the Sufis. Y’all can worship the Great Spirit of the Plastic Lawn Flamingo for all I care, but I probably won’t invite you in if you show up at the front door with a pamphlet.
As a righteous cheerleader for every spoke in the worship wheel, you’d think I’d be praising last week’s legislation by the Georgia General Assembly that supposedly guarantees freedom of faith. But I’ll be damned before I do.
Touted as the “First Amendment Defense Act,” House Bill 757 passed the Senate 38-14 last week, preceded by a unanimous vote by the House earlier in the month.
An obvious political boomerang to the federal passage of same-sex marriage last summer, it prohibits “adverse action by government against a person or faith-based organization who believes, speaks, or acts in accordance with certain sincerely held religious beliefs regarding marriage.”
Listen, I’m no biblical scholar, but I know a wolf in sheep’s clothing when I see one.
Ostensibly, FADA prevents any member of the clergy from being prosecuted if they refuse to wed gay couples. Except the First Amendment already protects them, so any such lawsuit would be an egregious waste of time and tax dollars.
While a small bunch of terrified fundamentalists seem to think otherwise, the SCOTUS ruling did not alter the right of Georgia’s pastors, rabbis, reverends and ministers to deny their services to whomever they want, ‘cause the church is over here, and the state is over there, and that’s how we do it in this country.
“Despite the deliberately-misleading rants of fear mongers, religious freedom in America is not in any danger,” agrees Charles Bowen of the Savannah law firm the Bowen Law Group in a recent essay.
“The United States Constitution guarantees equal treatment and protection to all citizens, particularly when taxpayer funds are involved. This bill is thus grossly unconstitutional.”
Quite obviously, there’s more fueling FADA than the extreme paranoia of a few. Perhaps its authors are confusing “sincerely held religious beliefs” with run-of-the-mill, secular bigotry?
“You can call this bill whatever you want, but it’s just another way of discriminating against gay people,” says Reverend Steve Schulte, who shepherds the flock at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Thunderbolt and has officiated over a dozen same sex weddings.
Rev. Schulte points out that it’s legal for first cousins to marry in Georgia, and he has passed on overseeing such incestuous unions based on his own beliefs. Thus far, this has not resulted in any lawsuits—or unnecessary legislation.
On a related note, the amount of damage from lightning strikes caused by same sex marriage is exactly zero.
So would Rev. Schulte marry a same sex couple if they were first cousins? “No,” he says thoughtfully. “But I’m sure there’s someone who would, and that’s their right.”
Clearly the fire and brimstone fueling FADA is gayness. I checked in with my main man Rabbi Robert Haas to see what he had to say, since our people have a little experience with religious persecution.
“I don’t see the need for this bill at all,” considers Rabbi Haas, who advocates for all manner of inclusivity and tolerance at Congregation Mickve Israel. “In fact, its potential for discrimination concerns me.”
The good rabbi is right to be troubled: What’s truly pernicious about HB 757 is that the wording opens the door to all kinds of other wicked legal tangles. Faith-based organizations and charities that operate for-profit businesses could supersede hard-won non-discriminatory policies, like refusing to rent housing not just to LGBTQ couples but other heathens like single mothers or people of color.
A private hospital could deny visitation to same sex spouses. A church operating a tax-funded homeless shelter could kick out anyone who doesn’t jive with its doctrine.
And because the bill must extend to all religions, those practicing extreme fundamentalism can justify any act of discrimination based on their beliefs about gender, race and practically anything else.
The whole business seems quite backwards, doesn’t it? But the real demon is another bill in the hopper: FADA’s buck-toothed first cousin HB 756 aims to protect “certain sellers of goods and services against infringement of religious freedom” by allowing businesses to refuse LGBTQ customers—or any other group that offends their delicate religious sensibilities.
That’s right, folks, that’s 50 years of civil rights legislation down the potty.
Triggered by the $135K fine levied against Oregon-based Sweetcakes by Melissa for horribly harassing a lesbian couple who asked for a wedding cake, HB 756 is Georgia’s answer to protecting private businesses’ “right to refuse service”—which they’re already allowed to do, as long as the refusal is based on the customer’s behavior or the safety of other patrons and employees.
But, see, Oregon has incredibly exhaustive laws that forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, which preceded that big fat fine. You know what Georgia doesn’t have? A single piece of legislation that protects LGBTQ citizens.
What these bills essentially do is legalize the right to discriminate while snaking around federally sanctioned rights, much like the way Southern states did in the 1960s. Stinks like decaying Jim Crow to me.
Here's some news: If you don’t want LGBTQ folks in your church or business, you don't have to legislate it. I promise they will happily take their money and contributions elsewhere all by themselves!
Which is exactly what’s already happening. After the Senate passed HB 757 (oh, fyi, our own Ben Watson voted “yay” and Lester Jackson said “nay”), several businesses immediately announced they are relocating to more tolerant cultural climes. By last Friday, over 400 Georgia-based companies, including Coca-Cola and Home Depot, have joined the anti-FADA coalition Georgia Prospers, united by a mission of “treating all Georgians and visitors fairly.”
For real, a state that keeps preaching about its multi-billion dollar film and wedding industries ought to be making itself more queer-friendly, not less. At least learn from other’s mistakes, for God’s (or Goddess’) sake: Indiana has reported $60 million loss of tourist revenue since it introduced its version of FADA last summer. The projected blow to Georgia’s economy could be up to $2 billion.
As this blasphemous bill finds its way to Gov. Deal and back to the House for another pass, let it be preached throughout the land: No one’s freedom—religious or otherwise—ought to come at the expense of anyone else’s.
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