Georgia’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Here in Georgia, Senate bill 129, or the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”, has been a big topic of conversation. Religious leaders have been showing up at the capitol repeatedly to express their support of a bill they believe will allow them to discriminate based on LGBT* status. Georgia Unites demonstrated today to share the opposite opinion and fight for anti-discrimination.

The bill’s original sponsor, Josh McKoon, says it does no such thing as religious leaders champion and progressives fear, instead pointing to the controversial firing of Atlanta’s fire chief based on a book he wrote, without permission, containing homophobic material. Here’s a half-hour long video explaining McKoon’s side, which I skimmed through.

I have a lot of thoughts on “religious freedom” and its need for “restoration”. I think the priority religion has in overriding other laws is already often too high. I feel that nuance in different situations is lost when everything is subsumed by “public square” chatter. Overall, I feel this bill serves to further elevate the privileged and conveniently ignore the marginalized.

Religious freedom at work

The legislation is motivated by what is perceived as discrimination based on expressing religious belief. If that actually is the case, and not that the fire chief was dismissed for publishing the book itself regardless of content, then that is a subject for discussion: how far can religious freedom go before other responsibilities supersede it?

Is it acceptable that an employee be a religious homophobe, if they do not let it manifest in their actions (somehow)? I think this is possible.

In the same situation, is it similarly acceptable if that employee talked about their religious homophobia with others outside of work?

Could they talk about it at work, if it weren’t harassment and there were no findings of a hostile work environment or discrimination? Is that possible?

Does being a public official who represents a city with a huge LGBT* community change the situation?

Finally, can this person make money publishing a book with those thoughts in it? These are the grey areas where I’m not sure where my opinions lie. This is both a legal question and a personal boundaries question.

But it’s also a hypothetical, since that isn’t necessarily why the Atlanta fire chief was fired in the first place. Still, it’s what the bill is supposed to be defending.

Uncertain ground

This is what kills me about politics: I don’t know who’s right. McKoon insists it’s not the doomsday scenario LGBT* activists fear (nor the one many religious leaders are championing, which he conveniently ignores when ridiculing his opposition):

Unfortunately, after three tweets at him, I was blocked. So much for continuing this conversation with him. I think it’s still worth having generally whether the impetus for this bill was legitimate or not.

Religious privilege

I don’t have the tools or knowledge to be able to predict what this legislation will ultimately do. I can look at the context around this bill, though, like the same concerns and debate happening in Indiana simultaneously. The half-hour video linked above features a speaker justifying this bill’s necessity with a long list of religious discrimination cases put out by Liberty University (a Christian college). This got me thinking:

Liberty University may have a list of discrimination cases on the basis of religious belief, but religion already operates with a privileged status in United States society and government (especially Christianity). Our national motto, money, and pledge of allegiance all exclude nonbelievers. Religious invocations start legislative sessions despite a supposed separation of church and state. Religious organizations are automatically tax-exempt. Religious beliefs constantly affect all of American society, including nonbelievers, in the form of marriage equality, discrimination policy, abortion, birth control, sex education, and anti-science measures like climate change denial, evolution denial, young Earth creationism… All of these have roots in religious opinion and affect those of us outside of their belief, those of us who want to live without religious influence forced on our lives.

Atheists remain one of the least-trusted and least-appealing groups in American society. Last year, 53% of Americans surveyed said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate that was an atheist. This matches years of similar results that, while slowly improving, show a persistent and undeniable distrust for a group that is nothing more than not a part of any religion.

I’ve heard enough horror stories from the Secular Student Alliance about what students have to endure just to get an affiliate group started in their school. They are stonewalled and pushed against at every turn, notably in public schools. This does not happen for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes or Christian groups in schools. Religion has seeped deeply into sporting events and classrooms where belief is assumed and nonbelievers’ wishes and existence are trampled over and erased.

And yet what bill is being put to the Georgia State Senate and House? What is immediately important to representative McKoon? Where are his priorities?

Protecting the already-privileged. Buttressing against the rightful calls for unearned deference to religion to be removed.

Religious minority caveat

As an aside, there could be a space for important protections to be put in place for “harmless” religious beliefs of commonly marginalized groups in the US, like Muslims. Nonbelievers can often ally with religious minorities because we are both discriminated against and distrusted by our society.

I have yet to see a single Islamic leader in Georgia stand up in support of this bill, though. I don’t see religious minorities championing this as a move to protect them from discrimination. Maybe they would; I’m frankly not sure.

What I do see are Christian groups rallying in support of what they believe will allow them to, if not discriminate, at least express their homophobia openly and with pride. This is far from the “harmless” ideal I can imagine this bill being about.

“Public square”

I am so, so tired of this phrase and its endlessly morphing definitions and boundaries. Sometimes “public square” means freedom of speech or religion on a literal public square. Sometimes it means freedom on private property. Sometimes it means freedom at work. Sometimes it means freedom as an employer. Sometimes it means injecting religion into government, compelling nonbelievers like me to do something religious in its name, strictly against the separate of church and state.

Every single one of those situations I described is different and varies in legal coherence. A person’s religious freedom changes depending on the context. American society generally already understands that when someone commits certain violent crimes in the name of religion, that is still unacceptable. Obviously 9/11 comes to mind, but we also no longer seriously consider Biblical justifications for slavery, either.

So we have a working baseline that says, very generally, that the law takes precedent over religious doctrine with respect to protecting people from harm.(1)Even if your religion says it’s very very important. Let’s go through these scenarios to explore how religious freedom (and that of expression and speech, as well) shrinks in favor of higher-priority law. I’m not an expert and may even get a few points wrong here, but I believe the trend is clear.

Literal public square

Shout to your heart’s content about your beliefs. You’re still subject to basic law prohibiting causing harm to others, of course.

Private property

Your religious beliefs extend only as far as the property owner allows. If the host of a party doesn’t like your religion or what you’re saying about it, they can kick you out, regardless of how important it is that you share your god’s word with everyone. Meanwhile, a friend can allow you to preach for hours on their property if both of you so desire.

Work

Your employer may have additional rules that you must follow, and certainly tasks to complete, to stay employed. Breaking those because of religious reasons, in my opinion, should not be protected based on nondiscrimination policy of religion. For example, it’s not religious discrimination that an observant Jew is fired from a BBQ restaurant because they won’t handle the pork. They’re simply not a useful employee based on a manifestation of their beliefs. A more liberal Jew might work there just fine.

Setting up a scenario in which a religious excuse is greater than any other excuse can become ridiculous quickly. If a devout Catholic construction worker gave up heavy lifting for Lent, even if that were core to their belief, it would be silly to protect them from being fired.

I’ve become more open to reasonable accommodations on this issue, like allowing religious clothing (Muslims, Sikhs) or small concessions that minimally interfere with the job, but I fear it could be exploited and maintain my objection to privileging religious justifications over nonreligious ones.

Employer

McKoon linked in a recent tweet to a post referencing the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision that allowed them to use religion as a excuse to not provide federally-mandated healthcare.

When the Obama Administration passed Obamacare, the government demanded businesses pay for abortion causing drugs.(2)They are not abortifacients. Hobby Lobby, which covers the birth control costs of its employees, refused to cover five to seven drugs that induce abortions. The Obama Administration demanded Hobby Lobby comply. It refused and sued along with several other small businesses whose families are guided by their faith in operating their businesses.

Hobby Lobby won its case in the United States Supreme Court. It did so not because of the First Amendment, but because of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Supreme Court case was very clear. The First Amendment would not have been enough to help the businesses affected. They had to rely on RFRA.

That’s why Georgia needs to pass S.B. 129. It’s not about what happens today or tomorrow. It’s about what happens a year from now. It’s not about what happens at the state level. It’s about what happens at the municipal and county level.

Speaker of the House David Ralston does not believe Christians need their faith protected. He is willing to see Christians surrender their ability to live their faith outside of 11am to noon on Sunday.(3)More evoking of the “public square”

This post convinced me of my objection to SB 129 because I strongly disagree with the Hobby Lobby decision. Operating a business in the United States means existing as an entity the government acknowledges and regulates. These regulations are, broadly speaking, for fairness and ethics in business, market stability, and employer/employee protection. (Though I am not an expert!)

In owning or operating a business, a person gives up some rights. Relevant to this conversation, they are not allowed to discriminate based on certain characteristics in hiring employees or in serving customers, even if their religious beliefs say they should.

When Obamacare was enacted, employers had new legally-required responsibilities to provide adequate healthcare to their employees. Part of the meaning of “adequate” meant birth control, which Hobby Lobby and other religious companies objected to.

This debate seems to come down to whether religious freedom is more important than the government’s compelling interest to regulate and control how businesses are run.

I strongly believe it is not. The Hobby Lobby decision potentially opens the door to a wide variety of religious exceptions for federal mandates of employers. What if a company based on Christian Science objects to having to offer healthcare at all, since one of its core tenants is that healing is done through prayer alone? That is not a negotiation I want to be having.

In these latter cases, religion is privileged over nonreligion by allowing religious exceptions that cannot be obtained by nonbelievers. This places religion above other beliefs, giving preferential treatment, and ultimately saying that beliefs held by atheists or nonreligious organizations or companies hold less weight.

This is a broader problem I have with how government treats religion, but that’s another lengthy topic.

Conclusion

I approach the Religious Freedom Restoration Act from the perspective of an atheist seeing religion protecting ground it was never supposed to have. I see it as an example of the narrow perspective the religious majority has in the United States by ignoring nonbelievers and remaining ignorant or even satisfied with our marginalization.

Whatever the ultimate effect of this legislation is if it passes, I disagree with the motivation, the precedent, and the ignorant context in which it is proposed.

Finally, beyond writing about it for everyone to see, which will perhaps have the most impact, the very least I can do it make my state representative John Lewis (or at least an aide of his) aware of my concerns:

I oppose SB 129

In looking at your list of LGBT activism on this website, I am happy and feel secure that you will vote against this “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” that many believe will enable discrimination based upon sexual orientation or trans* status.

I am an atheist, so I do not follow any religion, and I find it hard to believe that religious freedom needs to be “restored” in any way. On the contrary, it has occupied a privileged position in our society and government since its inception, in some ways despite the intent of the Constitution.

The only thing under attack is the unearned and unwarranted power religion holds in government spaces, including anti-science efforts and attempts to discriminate based on religiously objectionable grounds. This is what concerns me about this bill and why it must be defeated.

Thank you for reading.

I hope this post serves to clarify or illuminate aspects of this debate that aren’t always covered in the news or by politicians. This is how I think about these issues, and maybe that connects with some people better than other conversations on this topic.

Edit (25-03-2015):

WABE ran an article that includes this document listing supposed religious freedom violations that justify the need for this bill. The tone and context of this document doesn’t lead me to entirely trust its contents. The very first entry is about Georgia Tech’s “tiny” free speech zone on its “huge” campus:

Georgia Tech had various speech code policies, which applied to students and student organizations and limited their ability to express views on topics that the Institute deemed “intolerant.” Georgia Tech also limited the locations on its huge campus where students could engage in free speech to certain tiny “speech zones” and refused to give student activity funds to student organizations that engaged in “religious activities.”

Campus Freethinkers, the Georgia Tech atheist group, has had debates with the religious apologetics group on campus. We have attended their meetings where they share their religious belief with audiences small and large. A man in the student center will talk Jesus and anti-evolution with anyone who passes by once a week.

Those free speech zones? The most use they get throughout the year is when religious fearmongers come in the fall semester and yell that we’ll all be going to hell. They shame students for being sexual, being homosexual, being anything but Christian, and more.

This is what the bill is fighting for, apparently. Religious people are the persecuted ones, not the least-trusted and oft-discriminated nonbelievers and their endless struggle to be recognized and accepted in society. No. If we pooled resources, we could easily make a longer and uglier list than the one spurning this bill forward, but of course maintaining religious privilege is priority right now.

If this enables discrimination, it’s abhorrent. If it doesn’t, then it’s still evidence of heavily misplaced priorities and the fact that the plight of nonbelievers is not worthy of addressing.

Notes   [ + ]

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