The Politics Of Religious Freedom

This week’s Courier Herald column:

Another year is upon us where the end of the Georgia General Assembly coincides with Holy Week. Legislators should wrap up their annual business about the time the calendar turns to Good Friday. The difference between this year and last is that this time, legislators will leave town with a “religious freedom” bill sitting on Governor Deal’s desk awaiting his signature – or veto.

The bill is a combination of several previous proposals covering multiple concepts, yet ultimately changes little. A measure passed by the House that would reinforce the autonomy of religious services from government intrusion was grafted with a more controversial one that had passed the Senate. While much of this bill codifies existing state and federal law, it leaves any local ordinances (think City of Atlanta) to the interpretation of courts to see if the Government has met the burden for intruding into one’s exercise of religion.

There’s little in the bill that some evangelicals had been demanding: specifically, the ability of a shopkeeper to decline to render goods and services to customers they find objectionable. There’s just enough in there to raise concerns of the LGBT community that the bill is aimed at reducing their protections. We’re left with a bill that upsets activists on both sides of this issue but changes little.

This is, however, an election year and legislators will not have to return to their districts and face an angry public while trying to explain why they wouldn’t vote to protect freedom of religion. The cost is a dedicated public relations campaign that is chipping away at Georgia’s images of being “too busy to hate” as well as the number one place to do business.

The process has become one all too familiar with Republican politics since the infusion of Pat Robertson Republicans. Those who can position themselves as the most conservative – in this case as the “most Christian” – gain an upper hand with a standing pool of activists by pushing legislation that may never pass and changes little in practicality.

A distinguished service medal should be given to Columbus Senator Josh McKoon, who not only has made religious freedom a multi-year crusade, but this year tripled down by proposing a constitutional amendment to make English the official language of Georgia (even though this is already the law of the state), as well as a term limit to the Speaker of the House.

Take the politics of the first two bills out of this discussion for a moment and ask yourself why would a Senator drop a resolution to change the terms of how the opposing chamber elects their leader? More specifically, would this Senator be trying to convey his ability to get bills passed? More likely, it should be viewed as a petulant temper tantrum against a designated and needed enemy.

The battle is one made for media coverage. The benefit is free media to establish statewide name ID.

The cost of this free media is one that embroils a business community currently held hostage between competing interests. While one can argue that the protests over HB 757 have been disproportionate relative to the merits of the bill, they were not unexpected. Senator McKoon seems to welcome the fissure, asking his twitter followers to retweet his message “if you think civil liberties, including the right of free exercise of religion, are more important than the Super Bowl.”

The cost of this trophy may be a Super Bowl, with collateral damage to Georgia’s convention and tourism industry, film industry, and emerging high tech community. He acknowledges as much with his tweet. With populism supplanting many of the tenants of conservatism within the GOP ranks, being anti-business can be a good future selling point too.

There are other costs involved, however. The GOP’s alignment with evangelical politics – often weaponizing Christianity to achieve political goals – seems to be taking a toll on both those self identifying as Christian as well as those who identify as a Republican. The more a party chooses to appeal to Pharisees the fewer women at the well feel welcome. Matthew Sheffield has written an extensive article for The American Conservative outlining the challenges this raises for the GOP.

The net result is that a series of short term victories can be good for a candidate – maybe even for those of the same party. But longer term, there are fewer and fewer among us who are identifying as Republican which is a political problem. The much bigger problem is that fewer and fewer are identifying as religious and or Christian. The unfortunate irony is that the laws passed to protect religion by the majority may be needed to protect the same folks as a future minority – partially fueled by the politics used to make these laws possible.


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