House Democratic Caucus Members Make Their Case Against the Free Exercise Protection Act

In a Capitol press conference this morning, four members of the House Minority Caucus expressed their concerns with House Bill 757, now known as the “Free Exercise Protection Act.” Reps. Keisha Waites, Park Cannon, Karla Drenner, Dee Dawkins Haigler and Taylor Bennett said that while they were fine with the original Pastor Protection Act as it passed the House last month, they found the current version, which combined portions of that act with the First Amendment Defense Act and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, to be unacceptable, with Bennett calling the measure a “three-headed monster.”

Bennett, who is a lawyer dealing with discrimination issues when the legislature is not in session, said that many of the early states that adopted mini-RFRAs following the Supreme Court decision that the federal version didn’t apply to the states had strong civil rights laws to protect minority interests. Yet, he pointed out, some of the states who recently passed religious liberty legislation, including Arkansas and Indiana, removed civil rights provisions that would have protected sexual orientation. He pointed to House Bill 849, the Georgia Civil Rights in Public Accommodations Act, as a measure that would have offered some protections, but was never passed. Without those protections, Bennett said, the House couldn’t come together to create a bill like HB 757.

Rep. Cannon was blunt in her assessment of the bill:

House Bill 757, if signed into law by Governor Nathan Deal, will allow for discrimination based on sincerely held religious beliefs. This will mean that the business community, the LGBTQ individuals and the religious minorities may be made inferior by their neighbors. As a state, we have consistently been on the wrong side of many issues regarding civil rights and equality. Perhaps we are no longer a fortress of Jim Crow institutionalism, but we continue to regress by passing sweeping discriminatory measures like House Bill 757.

Representative Haigler, who is an ordained minister, resorted to scripture in saying that the measure goes against everything she believes in as a Christian. “Whatever we do to the least of these we do also unto Him,” paraphrasing Matthew 25:45. She continued, “What is right is not to discriminate against people because of sexual orientation, What is right is to not discriminate against people because you don’t like your lifestyle.”

Representative Drenner decried the claim of the bill’s supporters that HB 757 was needed to address the fact that religion was in danger in Georgia. in her opinion, the constitutions of the United States and Georgia, along with the federal RFRA provide sufficient protection to Peach State residents. The FADA section of the bill gives individuals and religious organization a blanket exemption to all laws that conflict with their religious beliefs.

I’ve heard already by proponents of the measure that the bill has not gone far enough. From my perspective, when we allow discrimination in any form, we can no longer call ourselves free because some of us are not. Freedom is an all-encompassing principle. There are no shades of liberty.

In her remarks, Rep. Drenner stated that nonprofit religious organizations can take government funds to provide services to the public, then use their religious beliefs to determine who will be served. Yet, the bill’s language states that government “may enforce the terms of a grant, contract or other agreement voluntarily entered into by such faith based organization,” which appears to be contrary to Rep. Drenner’s statement. Other possible discrepancies exist over whether the clause in section 2 stating that an individual is free to attend or not attend the solemnization of a marriage would allow service providers such as bakers, photographers and florists to opt out from participating in a same sex wedding.

When asked about these types of ambiguities in the bill, Drenner said, “I think that a lot of this will be resolved ultimately in the courts. I just see this as a lot of potential lawsuits forthcoming for the state.”

Whether Governor Deal will sign the measure is unknown. Senator Greg Kirk, who sponsored the measure in the Senate, is scheduled to hold a mid-day press conference on Tuesday to answer questions about the bill. All five of those speaking at today’s event urged Governor Deal to veto HB 757, with Rep. Drenner taking note of threats by businesses to leave the state. “The Georgia that I know and love is a state that is moving forward,” she said, “Looking to the future in terms of economic development and opportunities for everyone. I hope that continues.”

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