Georgia and the Religious Freedom Bill: Employment Discrimination and Big Business Opposition

June 20, 2016

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal’s vetoing of the Religious Freedom Bill caused huge controversy across the state. Both those in favor of the Bill and those arguing against it have valid reasons for their convictions. Even though the Bill has been vetoed, it is likely to be reintroduced next year. That said, it’s worth examining.

The federal Religious Freedom Act was enacted under President Bill Clinton by Congress in 1993. The Act states that individual religious liberty may be limited only by the least restrictive means of “furthering a compelling government interest.” It implies that for religious liberty to be in any way restricted, there has to be a clear, government-related reason for doing so. However, the successful challenging of the federal Act in the case of City of Boerne v. Flores laid doubt upon the extent to which the federal government can use that power. Why? In the case, the Supreme Court held that the Act’s use of the enforcement powers of Congress was unconstitutional.

Now Georgia wants to pass its own Religious Freedom Act. The judgment of City of Boerne v. Flores has undoubtedly been an impetus to this. Georgia’s Bill, termed the “Free Exercise Protection Act,” which would keep pastors from being legally obligated to perform same-sex weddings. Under the Act, no one could be forced to work at a same-sex wedding (i.e. caterers and photographers, etc.). Perhaps the most important implication of the Bill is that religious organizations could refuse to hire individuals when they perceive that to do so would violate their beliefs. They could also fire people at will for this very reason.

Bearing in mind the fact that Georgia is an employment at will state, this has concerning implications for employment protections. There could be many consequences of the Bill. For example, homeless shelters, are run by faith based organizations. Homeless teenagers whose lifestyles and sexual orientations conflict with religious beliefs could be turned away. Though the Bill does contain a provision that it should not be construed to “permit invidious discrimination on any grounds prohibited by federal or state law“ — it is not clear if that language alone is an adequate safeguard.

Governor Nathan Deal’s decision to veto the Bill has been roundly criticized by religious groups. He is adamant that in providing protection to religious groups, the Bill would discriminate against other sections of society.

People in favor of the veto argue that freedom is at stake. They say religious freedom requires no extra protection, whilst LGBT people do. On the other hand, religious groups have argued that Governor Deal was persuaded by the threats of big business (especially the film industry) which invests large sums of money in the Georgia economy. The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce (which focuses on growing the state’s economy) is also strongly opposed to the Bill, asserting that it is in direct conflict with important values of diversity and inclusion.

Georgia is a draw for major businesses. It is a center for conventions and tourism. Passing the Bill would potentially draw the wrath of large companies. Major media companies (such as Walt Disney Co. and Time Warner) have threatened to withdraw their business from Georgia if the Bill passes, which would potentially devastate swathes of industries across Georgia.

The state provides tax incentives that have made it immensely popular to the media industry, and the successful attraction of business to Georgia means that local jobs have been provided. Furthermore, tourism and housing markets have been positively impacted. Whether Governor Deal was motivated by economic reasons or genuine concern regarding discrimination, the facts are clear. If passed, the Bill would undoubtedly discriminate against people whose orientations and lifestyles conflict with the beliefs of religious organizations, and their employment would be threatened.

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