Ladies and Gentlemen, the Governor of the State of Georgia.
The decision surrounding HB 757 has generated more intense feelings than most legislation, perhaps because it has highlighted the concerns of many in our religious communities regarding the actions of federal courts, especially the United States Supreme Court in its 5-4 opinion last summer which legalized same sex marriage.
HB 757 enumerates certain actions that religious leaders, faith-based organizations and people of faith shall not be required to take or perform. These include solemnizing a marriage, attending such marriages, hiring church personnel or renting church property when such acts would be contrary to their sincerely held religious beliefs. Most people would agree that government should not force such actions, therefore it has puzzled me why a large coalition of advocacy organizations and big businesses would voice such vehement opposition to this law. If they, like most Americans, don't believe that churches should be forced by the state to violate their religious beliefs, then why are they prepared to punish the people of the state of Georgia and rob value away from their own shareholders in order to make sure that we don't explicitly protect liberties that are merely mild, noncontroversial provisions of what religious liberty has meant in this country for two centuries?
It is true that we have not yet experienced the kind of compulsion that has darkened the so-called jurisprudence of some other states, but the examples that we see across the landscape of our country give us ample reason for concern.
One example that is used is the photographer in New Mexico who refused to photograph a same sex marriage. That state has a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but it was not applicable. It was the New Mexico Human Rights Act that determined the results in that case. Georgia does not have a Human Rights Act, but it is clear that the businesses and advocacy groups who have threatened Georgia have it as their ambition to pass such laws in Georgia and in every other state of the union.
The second case that is cited is that of the bakery in Colorado that refused to bake a wedding cake for a same sex couple. There the court ruling was based on Colorado’s Public Accommodation Act which prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. Georgia does not have a Public Accommodation Act, but again, to veto this act would most certainly encourage the efforts of those who have it as their stated ambition to pass such legislation from coast to coast throughout our nation.
Although as I have examined the protections this bill seeks to provide to religious organizations and people of faith I can find no examples that any of the things this bill seeks to protect us against have ever occurred in Georgia, I do recognize that the Fire Chief of the City of Atlanta was terminated just months ago solely because the Mayor objected to his deeply held religious beliefs. Although it is apparent that the cases being cited from other states occurred because those state had passed statutes that specifically protected their citizens from adverse actions based on their sexual orientation, and although Georgia has no such statutes, the present state of our law is such that it permitted this unjust firing to take place under my watch, and I cannot with good conscience turn a blind eye to such injustices.
HB 757 appeared in several forms during the recent session of the Georgia General Assembly. I had no objection to the “Pastor Protection Act” that was passed by the House of Representatives. The other versions of the bill, however, contained language that could give rise to state-sanctioned discrimination. I did have problems with that and made my concerns known as did many other individuals and organizations, including some within the faith based community.
I appreciate the efforts of the General Assembly to address these concerns which they did with great care and precision. Their efforts to purge this bill of any possibility that it will allow or encourage discrimination illustrates how contentious these matters have become that truly were already suitably addressed long ago by the broad protections of the First Amendment of the United State Constitution. Our Founding Fathers did not attempt to list in detail the circumstances that religious liberty embraced. Instead, they adopted what the late Supreme Court Justice Scalia referred to as “negative protection.” That is, rather than telling government what it can do regarding religion, they told government what it could not do, namely, “establish a religion or interfere with the free exercise thereof.” HB 757, likewise, simply provides "negative protection," offering the simplest, least controversial provisions that I can imagine, and, as I have stated above, upon which most people actually agree. The government should not be able to force free people or religious institutions to perform, host, or attend any event that violates their consciences. The Founding Fathers had previously proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that Man’s Creator had endowed all men “with certain unalienable rights,” including “Liberty” which embraces religious liberty. They made it clear that those liberties were given by God and not by man’s government. Therefore, it was unnecessary to enumerate in statute or constitution what those liberties included. And yet, left to their successors has been the task of applying those principles to daily life by means of legislation and court rulings. This is nothing new. It has been ongoing for the full history of our Republic. Those who would argue that the First Amendment need not be applied specifically are practitioners of either amnesia or sophistry.
In light of our early history, it would be ironic that today some in the religious community feel it necessary to ask government to confer upon them certain rights and protections, but in light of our recent history, with Christians being fined, fired, bankrupted, and threatened merely for holding beliefs that are not even peculiar to one religion but were shared by every major world religion until the last decade or so, Christians need not be paranoid to wonder whether any limit exists to the determination to force uniformity by those who have championed a new morality in our land. If indeed our religious liberty is conferred by God and not by man-made government, we should heed the “hands-off” admonition of the First Amendment to our Constitution, and may God grant that we should return to a stable and shared presumption that these things are true. When legislative bodies attempt to do otherwise, the inclusions and omissions in their statutes can lead to discrimination, even though it may be unintentional. That is a risk to take, and it is unfortunate that our current legal climate requires that we state explicitly what should have been obvious all along. Nevertheless, the greater risk lies in losing the heart of religious liberty protections that have well served both the state and the churches since the dawn of our nation.
Some of those in the religious community who support this bill have resorted to insults that question my moral convictions and my character. Some within the business community who oppose this bill have resorted to threats of withdrawing jobs from our state. I do not respond well to insults or threats. The people of Georgia deserve a leader who will made sound judgments based on solid reasons that are not inflamed by emotion. That is what I intend to do.
As I’ve said before, I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia of which my family and I are a part of for all of our lives, nor do I think that we have to use the compulsive force of the government to force people to violate their religious consciences at the point of a gun. Our actions on HB 757 are not just about protecting the faith-based community or providing a business-friendly climate for job growth in Georgia. This is about the character of our State and the character of its people. Georgia is a welcoming state filled with warm, friendly and loving people. Our cities and countryside are populated with people who worship God in a myriad of ways and in very diverse settings. Our people work side-by-side without regard to the color of our skin, or the religion we adhere to. We are working to make life better for our families and our communities. That is the character of Georgia. In our personal lives we tolerate difference of opinion on questions like same-sex marriage without forcing anyone to perform, host, or attend anyone else's wedding. I intend to do my part to keep it that way.
For that reason, I will sign HB 757.
This was orignally published here.