Fayette County Commission Chairman Eric Maxwell. Photo/Ben Nelms.
A resolution to request that the General Assembly pass a bill “Protecting Religious Freedom” was adopted at the Dec. 13 meeting of the Fayette County Commission on a 4-1 vote, but not before nearly two dozen people spoke on the topic, with nearly all opposed.
The resolution states that “Fayette County shall not infringe upon the ability of individuals to act in accordance with their sincerely held beliefs” and that “Fayette County condemns any behavior by any other government that limits the ability of individuals to express their religious beliefs.”
Commissioner Charles Rousseau began the discussion, suggesting that the resolution “is beyond our purview,” and goes beyond the pale of the commission’s assignment.
“(The resolution) confuses people and it is not our responsibility,” said Commissioner Charles Rousseau at the outset of the agenda item.
One of the many speakers at the meeting was Walter Hopewell, who said he did not know why the religious freedom resolution is needed.
“This will be detrimental to this state and county,” he said.
Another speaker and her spouse work at Pinewood Atlanta Studios. She said they moved from Florida after the film incentives were lost, adding that concern that, if passed statewide, the legislation could lead to the film industry pulling out of Georgia.
Another speaker opposing the resolution was Ken Bryant, noting that he is a vice president of the local NAACP.
“This came up three years ago. We had this argument three years ago. Why are we doing this again? We went through this with Pinewood Studios. Why is this even on the agenda?”
Also speaking against the resolution was Rep. Derrick Jackson (D-Tyrone) who said the resolution sends the wrong message. Jackson said Fayette is the only county in Georgia to pass the resolution.
“We’re better than this. We’re Fayette County,” Jackson said, among other comments such as having the will of the people followed as he motioned his arm toward the audience.
Commissioner Steve Brown later in the meeting referenced Jackson’s comments as a “dirty trick,” adding that Jackson makes a statement then leaves the meeting without Brown being able to respond to him.
Fayetteville Mayor Ed Johnson also spoke in opposition.
“And today you have heard, the citizens of Fayette County have resoundingly told you that they are not in favor of Fayette County supporting the (religious freedom) bill legislation. But yet, there seems to be a propensity for you all to push this,” Johnson said, adding that the commission’s support of the bill would single Fayette out as a county that endorses discrimination.
Johnson said an endorsement of the bill could keep some companies from locating in Fayette County.
Another speaker, Alex Domaleski who said she spoke on behalf of small businesses said, “I don’t mean to be rude, but there is really nothing else to call this bill other than racist and ignorant. I don’t even know why we’re having this discussion.”
Several speakers during public comments reminded commissioners that the electorate in Fayette County is changing.
Fayette County Board of Elections member Aaron Wright was essentially alone in his support for the resolution.
“This resolution and legislation (if passed by the General Assembly) would mirror the national law, which I will remind the audience was brought forward by (Democratic U.S. Senator) Chuck Shumer and signed into law by (former President) Bill Clinton.”
Brown later in the meeting reiterated that point, noting that the intent of the resolution is only to protect citizens from government.
Brown cited an incident at a college in Gwinnett County where a student was assigned a small space on one side of the campus to make his remarks, which were religious. Brown said the man was subsequently removed by police after someone became offended at his 1st Amendment right to free speech.
Another speaker was Fayette County Development Authority Chairman Darryl Hicks, who commented on issues relating to economic development.
Hicks said Fayette, at one point, was first on the list of a major development last year. Hicks did not note the name, though it was Facebook.
Hicks said the feedback FCDA received (which Hicks later said was third-hand) indicated that one of the three reasons why Fayette slipped to the No. 2 project site on the list, was due to the religious freedom resolution adopted by the commission.
“What we have to do better at, even our (FCDA) board, is how do we deal with issues that are divisive,” Hicks posed, adding that some issues which are divisive can also be ones that engender passion. The aim, said Hicks, is finding a way to deal with those issues so that the community is not put at a disadvantage when other development projects come our way.
That said, Hicks said no one issue will stop FCDA from aggressively pursuing good prospects.
Public comments ended with the topic returning to commissioners, with the vote soon taken to adopt the resolution on a 4-1 vote. Rousseau was opposed.
Chairman Eric Maxwell in response to the public comments said, “Read the legislation. I don’t see where the discrimination comes from that people are talking about.”
Commissioner Chuck Oddo he did not disagree with Rousseau, saying that the resolution is not the business of the county.
“But we’re here voting on this,” Oddo said, acknowledging that his vote, regardless how it is cast, would upset some.