Sen. Marty Harbin
Support for the religious freedom bill in the current session of the Georgia General Assembly was on the agenda at the Jan. 11 meeting of the Fayette County Commission. Commissioners following a wealth of public comments advocating for both sides of the issue, voted 4-1 to support the bill sponsored by state Sen. Marty Harbin (District 16).
Presented by Commissioner Randy Ognio, the resolution supported Harbin’s Senate Bill 233 to protect religious freedom in Georgia and to adopt the text of U.S. House Resolution 514, introduced in Congress in 2015 to take any necessary action to protect religious freedom in Georgia.
Commissioners at the end of the agenda item voted 4-1 to support SB 233. Commissioner Charles Rousseau was opposed.
Referred to as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), commissioners prior to the Jan. 11 vote, and following a presentation by Harbin, heard from 20 speakers in public comments, weighing in on the topic.
Harbin during his comments gave a history of RFRA legislation in the U.S. Harbin, in noting that passage of religious freedom bills do not correlate with a reduction in business, said that of that of the Top 10 states for business in 2017, only Georgia and Ohio did not have FRFA laws.
Of the 20 speakers in public comments, a small majority of those speakers were opposed to the resolution. Among those were Rep. Derrick Jackson (District 64), Rep. Debra Bazemore (District 63), Fayette County Board of Education member Leonard Presberg and former Fayetteville Planning and Zoning Commissioner Derryll Anderson.
Jackson said the bill is not conducive to good government, adding that it would disrupt quality of life and sends a message of discrimination.
“It’s bad for Georgia. Anything that comes close to it will be defeated,” Jackson said, adding that Republican Gov. Nathan Deal would veto the bill if it passes.
Bazemore in her comments called the bill divisive, with Anderson saying that the adoption of a supporting resolution by the commission would hurt Fayette County’s image.
“The freedom to discriminate is not something we should tolerate or give the impression that we support,” said Presberg in his comments.
Still others during public comments approved of commissioners adopting a resolution supporting the bill.
“Everyone’s rights have to be protected. Everyone should have the right to practice their faith. Why are the lawsuits only against Christians?” said Fayette resident Jane Owens, adding that the states are the final arbiters of the issue.
Fayette resident Frank Gardner was one of a small handful of residents questioning the need to have the issue addressed at a commission meeting. Gardner said it is “out of place” to ask commissioners to make a religious statement.
The board took up the matter after citizens had their say. Commissioner Steve Brown, who later voted for the resolution, also gave the bi-partisan, historical background for the bill.
“Religious freedom is directly linked to the American system,” Brown said, then, by way of example said, “Not serving a wedding cake is a civil matter. This is not in the bill. RFRA has not be used in a private suit.”
Also weighing-in on the matter was Commissioner Charles Rousseau.
“Tonight we have created an atmosphere that has a number of people confused. I’m just trying to figure out what our positon is here. Is this a litmus test to see how religious we are? Where we stand?” Rousseau asked, questioning if the occasion met the requirements of the commission’s charge. “Does it elevate us and does it meet the standard for what our responsibilities are?”
Ognio in response said, “This is simply a resolution to help move the Senate bill forward. It’s part of our yearly legislative package.”
Commissioner Charles Oddo in his comments said he understands the passion on both sides of the issue.
“For me, this is a mirror-image of the federal bill. I don’t see it as a discriminatory bill, and that seems to be the crux of the whole matter here,” Oddo said, adding that he did not believe the bill, if it passes, would be used in a discriminatory way.
Chairman Eric Maxwell just before the vote read from the resolution, noting that the board believes that the General Assembly should take action to protect religious freedom and that the board is dedicated to the protection of religious freedom.
The Congressional version of RFRA was adopted by Congress in 1993. Introduced by Rep. Chuck Shumer, it received a unanimous vote. A companion bill was introduced in the Senate the following day by the late Ted Kennedy passed on a 97-3 vote, the with two Democrats and one Republican opposed. President Bill Clinton subsequently signed it into law, according to govtrack.us
FRFA in 1997 was held to be unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, saying it was not a proper exercise of Congress’s enforcement power, govtrack said.
Since 1993, 21 states have enacted state RFRAs. These laws are intended to echo the federal RFRA, but are not necessarily identical to the federal law as of May 2017, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
Nine other states, including Georgia, had RFRA legislation pending in 2017, according to NCSL.