A swarm of Democrats are infuriated at our Board of Commissioners for endorsing a resolution supportive of a state Religious Freedom Restoration Act, RFRA, using the same verbiage as the 1993 bill by Chuck Schumer, Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton at the federal level (1993). Endorsement for RFRA also came from the American Civil Liberties Union and the left-leaning People for the American Way.
The federal bill passed with bipartisan support. In fact, the federal RFRA was a major bipartisan success, including a 97-3 vote in the Senate.
And while I commend our Democrat friends for prompting their membership’s involved in local government activities, I suggest that they please read the bill before following the marching orders of the party leadership and the Democrat elected officials. There was no excuse for party leadership and elected officials to offer misleading statements in the public meeting, offering scenarios that are not relevant to the legislation.
Democrat state Rep. Derrick Jackson, who knows the language in proposed bill mirrors the 1993 RFRA, made some vague claims and stated that commissioners who took an oath to defend the U.S. Constitution should stay silent on the freedoms of constituents. He referred to the protection of religious practice as a mere “cultural, social issue” and he judges that other issues are of greater magnitude.
Rep. Jackson claimed that defending the freedoms was counter to what “the people” want. He is reimagining the recent election where Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp openly campaigned for RFRA and won.
A recent letter in The Citizen opposing the RFRA bill stated, “This [Board of Commissioners’] resolution functions to provide comfort to certain constituencies by implying some beliefs deserve special protection and that their local government will provide cover.”
Is the claim really that religious persecution, well documented, is not a substantive issue? Similarly, are the Democrats becoming the anti-religion party, claiming that long-held protections to practice religion are better weakened or no longer needed?
Dating back to the days of the colonies, religious liberty has always been more than a mere social issue. Consequentially, there are many who do not practice or believe in any religion, which is perfectly acceptable in our country as well.
In the United States, religious liberty is sometimes referred to as the “first liberty,” promoting freedom of the mind which logically and philosophically precedes all other freedoms protected by the U.S. Constitution. Our nation has always believed that there shall be full freedom of conscience for people of all faiths or no faith. Likewise, religious liberty has always been considered a natural or inalienable right that is beyond the power of the state to confer or remove, giving people the right to freely practice any religion without government interference.
So, if freedom of religion is alluded to in the U.S. Constitution, why do we need a law protecting religious expression and practice?
Congress passed the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act in response to a specific Supreme Court decision, Employment Division v. Smith (1990). There, the Court revised a decades-old constitutional rule from Sherbert v. Verner (1963) that permitted plaintiffs to seek exemptions from federal laws infringing upon their free exercise rights.
Instead, Smith held that religious plaintiffs couldn’t be exempted from neutral, generally applicable laws. In the case itself, the Court permitted the state of Oregon to deny unemployment benefits to Native American plaintiffs who were fired for ingesting peyote during a religious ceremony. Widespread concern over this apparent narrowing of free exercise rights (and disagreement with the result) prompted legislation to change it (citation: www.civilrightslawfind.com).
So, each state had to have its own RFRA and 30 states have created such laws.
The proposed bill in Georgia mirrors the federal RFRA language. The bill only concerns the government’s actions taken against citizens that oppress their religious beliefs. It does not apply to any relationship between businesses and individuals related to discrimination of any kind. It is only the government’s actions against citizens.
The bill states that the government would have to show that there are no other less damaging means to accomplish a government action that impedes upon someone’s religious beliefs. It has nothing to do with florists, restaurants, LGBTQ, etc.
This bill is the epitome of the separation of church and state which should please Democrats, but the marching orders are to rally against it.
Know there are cases here in Georgia that have caused great concern and calls for a RFRA bill. Most come from state-run colleges and universities restricting free religious speech and practice.
RFRA does not give any religious organization the right to break the laws within a community. However, when the government implements some action that limits the free exercise of religion, RFRA says it must be to protect a compelling public interest with as little restriction as possible.
On Facebook, Rep. Jackson claimed “It’s ironic when an ‘elected’ official claims to be knowledgeable about a topic [in this case legislation] but can’t respond beyond ‘talking points’ or personal attacks. We are all entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts. Facts are facts, and The Constitution already enables us religious freedoms.”
Apparently, Rep. Jackson did not do his homework or check the background material on the court rulings. He was offended that the local commissioners would voice an opinion on state legislation, but he never complained on other resolutions regarding bills before the state. Why?
The retort from the dialog when this issue was discussed at a previous meeting one year ago was if RFRA passed in the state legislature that we would lose the Amazon HQ2 project. As it turned out, Amazon chose Virginia, which has a RFRA law.
Anyone who wants to see the public comments from citizens and elected officials at the Board of Commissioners meeting can do so at https://youtu.be/SzkPO5159so and make your own determination.
Let’s have an honest debate. Let’s read the legislation. Let’s not sacrifice any of our fundamental rights.
Peachtree City, Ga.
[Brown is a former Peachtree City mayor and Fayette County commissioner.]