A couple of weeks ago, I was highly critical of the efforts of proponents of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and particularly of State Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus). The senator did a smart thing: He reached out and asked for the opportunity to explain his position directly to you. After the cuffing he took, I figured I owed him that.
Here is what he had to say: “There are two components to protecting religious freedom in our state: Adoption of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and a First Amendment Defense Act (FADA).”
Religious freedom is a second-class right in Georgia. Every other right protected under the First Amendment (free press, free association and free speech) receives the highest level of constitutional scrutiny while the right of free exercise of one’s religious beliefs is relegated to a much lower level. An inmate in a federal prison in Georgia has greater protection of his religious freedom than you or I do from our state or local government.
Why is that? Because the Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the federal RFRA doesn’t apply to states or local governments.
Since then, 31 other states have adopted their own RFRA standard. What is the impact of not having RFRA? In our state we have seen religious student organizations kicked off college campuses, students in public schools ordered not to read religious material on their own time, references to religious texts like the Bible scrubbed from football playbooks, students disqualified from athletic competitions for wearing clothing with scripture references and, in one school district, a total ban on the use of school facilities by people of faith at any time. In Kansas, another state that did not have RFRA, a Medicaid patient was denied life-saving treatment and later died due to the state’s decision not to accommodate her religious belief.
The assault on people of faith not only comes from ham-fisted bureaucrats, but also to a coordinated campaign of lawsuits from out-of-state groups that do seek to establish a religion in our state: atheistic secular humanism. Passing a state RFRA would ensure Georgians have the same protection from interference of their religious freedom from state and local government that they have enjoyed from the federal government. We should act to ensure government remains a neutral referee with respect to different religious traditions instead of becoming a player on the field advocating for one set of beliefs over another. A state RFRA would achieve the balance necessary to maintain our tradition of religious freedom for all without fear of repression by government.
Since the Supreme Court redefined marriage last summer, there are new threats to religious freedom. Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged several such threats in his dissenting opinion to include student housing at religious colleges, religious adoption agencies that believe in traditional marriage and the tax exempt status of houses of worship that teach traditional marriage. Do we want to strip houses of worship that teach traditional marriage of their tax exempt status? Do we want to revoke accreditation of private, religious K through 12 schools that teach traditional marriage? Do we want to deny professional licenses to counselors and others because they hold a sincere religious belief in traditional marriage? Do we want to shutter adoption agencies that limit their placements to opposite sex married couples?
The First Amendment Defense Act merely prevents state or local government from punishing people of faith for their sincerely held religious beliefs. This carefully considered statute would not diminish the rights of same-sex married couples in any respect, but rather ensures that this new right does not lead to a collateral attack on our tradition of safeguarding religious freedom for all without the government passing judgment on the religious views of individual faith traditions.
We have a clear choice. Take no action and watch courts shutter faith-based adoption agencies as has occurred in Massachusetts, Illinois and the District of Columbia. The other choice is to allow the elected representatives of the people to create a predictable legal environment that reinforces religious freedom for all. We should not wait for courts to make bad law to take corrective legislative action. We should pass RFRA and FADA to ensure people of every faith tradition need not fear government retribution if they hold religious beliefs unpopular in certain quarters.
What action can you take to make a difference? First, please share this column with your friends, family and associates. Second, find out who your state legislators are and let them know that you want these measures passed. Third, call Gov. Deal and let him know you want these protections in Georgia law. With your help we can adopt these common sense reforms.
Dick Yarbrough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at dickyarbrough.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dickyarb.