Atlanta – In a letter to Governor Nathan Deal and legislative leaders, sixteen legal scholars from around the country agree that a religious focused bill, House Bill 29, “will invite and legitimate discrimination.” The signatories of this letter, including two from Emory University and one from Mercer University, are legal experts in matters of religious freedom, civil rights, and the interaction between those fields.
The letter – Preventing Government Overreach on Religious Expression Act – states that the bill, if enacted, “will send a powerful message that religiously-based refusals to provide equal treatment to particular classes of employees, customers, and persons seeking public service are legally superior to any legal prohibitions on discrimination.”
In addition to Governor Deal, the letter was sent to Lieutenant Gasey Cagle, Senate President David Shafer, House Speaker David Ralston, Senator Josh McKoon, and sponsor of HB 29, Representative Sam Teasley. (The letter is posted at www.GAUnites.org.)
“This letter confirms what I and many others have been saying. Simply put, this bill will allow discrimination in Georgia. It will not only harm gay and transgender people, but it will also open the door for really bad unintended consequences for people in our state. Under this proposal, individuals could claim that any number of laws don’t apply to them, resulting in special treatment,” said Jeff Graham, Executive Director of Georgia Equality and spokesperson for Georgia Unites Against Discrimination, a campaign committed to protecting gay and transgender Georgians from discrimination.
Last year, similar legislation was stopped in committee, in large part, due to the active opposition from leaders in the business community, like Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce has once again stated that it opposes any bill that would allow discrimination. Many business leaders are concerned that this proposed law will badly damage the business reputation of the state and jeopardize Georgia’s ability to grow its economy and negatively impact its reputation as a leader in global commerce.
The legal scholars urge the bill be amended to exclude all for-profit business entities, including corporations, from coverage as “persons” protected by the Bill. They also urge the inclusion of a provision that the Bill does not apply to any laws – federal, state or local – that prohibit invidious discrimination by public officials, employers, business owners, and those involved in the sale or rental of residential housing.
In regard to the timing of these bills coming up now in Georgia and various state legislatures, the letters says that it is impossible to deny the connection between the looming constitutional decision on marriage equality.
Indeed, the scholars noted real consequences of HB 29. “Some business owners, or other persons, might object to intimate same-sex relationships, marriage or otherwise; other business owners might object to inter-racial or inter-faith marriages; still others might have religious objections to out of wedlock pregnancy or unmarried parenthood . .”
Finally, the letter unequivocally states: “HB 29 is unnecessary to protect freedom of belief and worship in Georgia. The state constitution already protects each person’s natural and inalienable right to worship God, each according to the dictates of that person’s own conscience.”
“HB 29 would permit the religious beliefs of some Georgians to deprive others of their equal rights to participate in the state’s economic and social life. In its current form, we strongly urge you to reject it.”
Graham is hopeful that the bill will be defeated because most Georgians support basic values of fairness and freedom.
“One of our most important values is treating others the way we want to be treated, and creating new laws that go against that principle hurts us all,” said Graham.
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