The state of Georgia recently became the latest addition in a trend that has come to characterize the frantic efforts of many state legislatures following The Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling on June 26, 2015. Georgia’s House Bill 757, which passed after extensive debate in the Senate by a margin of 38 to 14 on February 19th, will provide for the exemption of sincerely religious individuals and businesses from anti-discrimination laws pertaining to gays and lesbians. Furthermore, amendments to the bill made in the Senate aim to include provisions similar to aspects of the Pastor Protection Act, which protects religious leaders against legal penalties for refusing to marry gays, and the First Amendment Defense Act, which permits tax-funded organizations to deny services based on sincerely held religious beliefs.
Although House Bill 757 has yet to take effect, and may not become a law at all depending upon its return to the House this week, a significant amount of backlash is occurring in the state over the measure. Many critics are suggesting that it constitutes little more than state sanctioned discrimination against LGBT individuals. In fact, one Georgia-based telecom startup company called 373K announced plans on February 19th to relocate the company to Nevada. The company’s founder, Kevin Williams, who is openly gay, posted an open letter on February 21st in response to developments regarding the bill.
“[W]e cannot, in good conscience, be domiciled in a state and pay state income taxes to support a government that encourages discrimination through legislation. Even if the bill fails to become law, the actions of the Senate were enough for us to seriously reconsider being based in Georgia. As of this writing our executive team is in the process of incorporating in the state of Nevada,” Williams wrote.
Meanwhile, legislators and proponents of the measure insist that House Bill 757 does not intend discrimination against gay and lesbian individuals, but merely the protection of individuals and businesses refusing services on account of deeply, sincerely held religious convictions. Georgia Governor Nathan Dean elaborated on his position regarding the controversial bill on Monday, and attempted to reassure critics by saying that the bill is “continuing to evolve.”
“I’ve expressed my concern that I do not want us to do anything that may be perceived as allowing discrimination in the state of Georgia,” remarked Governor Dean. “That is not who we are as a people, and I don’t think we have to do that in order to give the security that the faith-based community thinks they need. I just want to make sure we don’t let that get out of balance in that regard.”
Contrary to considerable criticism from Democrats, Senator Greg Kirk, a strong proponent of House Bill 757 and a sponsor of the First Amendment Defense Act, insisted that “[t]his bill protects the constitutional rights of individuals and faith-based organizations. It takes nothing away from same-sex couples or members of the LGBT community. It is a live and let live bill.”
Critics from the Democratic side of the aisle, however, maintained both that the bill provides “a license to discriminate,” in the words of Senator Vincent Fort, and that the bill constitutes a serious threat to Georgia’s business communities. Senator Nan Orrock, for example, indicated concern that enacting the bill would likely prompt boycotts of the state by international corporations such as Apple and by major sports organizations including the NFL. Ironically, much of the strongest opposition to House Bill 757 emerged out of Georgia’s business communities, with many of these critics
fearing that Georgia’s production and service industries would take considerable hits, particularly in the form of boycotts, in the name of legislation that relatively few Georgian businesses are asking for.
Another proponent of the measure, Senator Tommie Williams, responded by suggesting that protecting Georgians’ religious beliefs superseded these concerns, namely that of a threatened boycott. “When it comes down to football or religious freedom, I’m on the side of religious freedom,” said Williams.
Ultimately, Georgia’s push for legislation in the vein of “religious freedom restoration” is fairly unsurprising, given that Georgia is only the most recent inclusion in a national trend in the same direction. An additional 15 states debated pieces of religious freedom legislation in 2015, including Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming. Currently, the National Conference of State Legislatures indicates that some form of “religious freedom restoration” legislation exists in 21 states, including Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.
While it is not clear that all pieces of “religious freedom restoration” legislation are invariably bad, it does seem clear that recent efforts like House Bill 757 are exceptionally broad in scope, and that they can entail serious consequences that outweigh their perceivable benefits. Among these potential consequences are threats of boycotting, increased divisiveness between religious organizations and the LGBT community, and, as Vincent Fort suggests, “a license to discriminate.”
-Austin Wash ’16, Senior Politics/Opinions Editor