November 17, 2016 8:00 AM
State Rep Jason Spencer of Woodbine prefiled a bill on Tuesday that appears to be aimed at the practice of Muslim women wearing niqabs or burqas. Both types of headgear mask the woman’s face, which is a religious practice followed by many Muslims. House Bill 3 modifies a section of Georgia’s code that prohibits the wearing of a mask or similar face covering on public property. The original intent of what’s known as the Mask Act, designed to prevent the Ku Klux Klan from wearing masks during their demonstrations.
The bill adds a provision that includes prohibiting wearing a mask while driving, and changes the language to specifically include the situation “where she wears a mask or hood.” The bill also incorporates current Department of Driver Services policy into law by requiring that drivers license or ID photos be taken so that the full face can be seen in the picture.
Since the bill would restrict the free excercise of a Muslim woman’s religion, it would appear to reinforce the need for a state Religious Freedom Restoration Act similar to Senate Bill 129, introduced last session as the “Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” And it didn’t take long for Sen. Josh McKoon, the sponsor of SB 129 to make that connection in a Facebook post:
I have read today about a bill that, as I understand it, would ban observant Muslim women from wearing religious clothing in keeping with their tradition of modest dress. Passing laws that clearly abrogate the free exercise rights of fellow Georgians will do nothing but create additional fear and division. I agree that when taking Driver’s License photos that one’s face should not be obscured and in fact current DDS regulations require that. But we should not give in to a fear of religious traditions that some may not value or understand — after all we live in a country founded on the idea that all of us are entitled to the right of free exercise, not just those government deems worthy.
In a statement, House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams echoed McKoon’s concerns about harming religious freedom. Calling Spencer’s proposed legislation the “direct result of the rhetoric we heard during Donald Trump’s Islamophobic Presidential campaign,” Abrams went on to say,
[W]e will reaffirm our commitment to fighting back against legislation that harms the free exercise of religion and singles out any community in our state. In the era of an impending administration that traffics in xenophobia and flouts the 1st Amendment, we cannot afford to be silent when Georgians’ constitutionally-protected rights are threatened.”
Bills are often prefiled as statements, when the author believes that the chances of the bill getting passed is slim to none. Prefiling a bill can also serve as a trial balloon, in order to get reactions in front of the legislative session in January when there is lots of competition for attention. Another advantage of a pre filed bill is that it isn’t official unless the legislator drops the bill in the hopper once the session starts. If not, the bill goes away, never to be heard from again. We will see which path Rep. Spencer takes.