Saturday, November 1, 2014

‘Religious Freedom’ bill falters after backlash


By Josh Akeman

Monday was Crossover Day for the state legislature, the 30th day of the legislature's 40-day session and traditionally the last chance for bills to pass at least one house and have a shot at becoming law. This year, "religious freedom" bills in the house and senate both sputtered and died on crossover day after garnering national attention that was partly rolled up with the even larger national debate of Arizona's religious freedom bill, recently vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer after criticism that the law would codify the right for businesses to refuse service to gay customers.
Peachtree City Representative Matt Ramsey was a co-sponsor of House Bill 1023, and said he was very surprised by the reaction to what he believed was a very minimal protection of religious freedom.
"Never has there been more misinformation put out on a bill in my entire legislative career," Ramsey said, "That's unfortunate, I think the unfortunate thing is it's being swept up in the discussion of the Arizona bill but it's not the Arizona bill."
The Arizona law was presented on the heels of stories out of New Mexico and Colorado. In the former, a New Mexico judge let a gay couple sue a photographer that would not photograph their wedding, while in Colorado a judge ruled against a baker who similarly refused to provide a cake for a gay wedding.
Whereas those states have laws prohibiting discrimination against gay people, Arizona and Georgia do not have similar laws, meaning discrimination of this kind would not likely be protected in the courts anyway.
Ramsey said H.B. 1023 was intended to "put in a basic RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) protection," referencing a federal law passed in 1993. That law was stripped of state and local applicability, however, in a 1997 Supreme Court case, meaning it remains a federal law but has no application in state cases. Ramsey argued that the law already reflected the federal law and similar state laws already on the books in 29 states.
"All it does it put in place a balancing test if a state of goergia or local government passes a law or regulation that burdens a person's free exercise of religion and claims the law would burden the person's religion," Ramsey said, "The media is portraying this as it somewhow gives businesses the right to deny service based on sexual orientation."
Ramsey said he didn't believe denying service to gay customers was a likely outcome of passage of the law.
"There literally has never been one case in 20 years that this regulation has been in effect that would bolster the argument that this somehow promotes discrimination," Ramsey said.
Ramsey offered examples in Philadelphia, where he said a city wide ban on feeding the homeless outdoors was challenged by a Catholic church and overturned under RFRA. He also said a typical case might be "a kid wearing a t-shirt that says Jesus on it to a public event and being prohibited from doing so. That's the kind of burderning of free exercise of religion that commonly arises in a RFRA case."
He did say that the law could apply in a circumstance like those seen in New Mexico and Colorado, a situation where a gay person or couple are refused service by a business.
"I would say this, right now in Georgia law, sexual orientation is not a protected class. Right now, if a restaurant or business wanted to deny service to someone based on sexual orientation, there's nothing in law to prevent them from doing so right now," Ramsey said, "there's no evidence that's happening because that kind of discrimination would be abhorrent, that's no way to run a business, and businesses owners are motivated by profit."
Ramsey also said Georgia's bill only applied to government actions prohibiting religious freedom.
"I don't believe it's in response to anything other than a two decades effort to put this very, very, very basic, modest check on gov. That's really all this is, this has nothing to do with activities between private parties. All this is a check on the government," Ramsey said.
The Arizona law drew a lot of backlash at various levels and, apparently, could have cost the state the Super Bowl, which is scheduled to be played there next year at University of Phoenix Stadium. Here in Georgia, HB 1024 and its counterpart in the senate drew criticism from large corporations like Delta Airlines, Coca-Cola Co., Home Depot and UPS.
Ramsey said he felt a circumstance like the NFL refusing to hold a Super Bowl here wouldn't likely have happened.
"I don't think that would happen here. If that were the case then a professional sports league would rule out 29 other states and frankly the whole rest of the country because the federal government has this exact provision around the country. Really they would have to hold their events off shore to be consistent."
The bills were introduced late in the session and even last week Ramsey said he had little faith they would work through the system to pass this year. Their failure to pass Monday historically suggests they won't be passed in the final ten days of the legislative session.


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