Tom’s vote: NO
HB 757, also known as RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is described in a summary as a comprehensive measure that strikes a balance between protecting the religious liberties of clergy, churches, and faith-based organizations (FBOs), while welcoming all to Georgia without fear of discrimination. This legislation incorporates language previously included in the Pastor Protection Act (PPA) protecting pastors and religious practitioners from performing marriages as well as any other religious rite or sacrament contrary to their strongly held beliefs. Further, HB 757 protects business from being required by local ordinance to operate on a day of rest – such as Saturday or Sunday.
In addition, this bill protects FBOs from civil penalties for refusing to rent or lease their property for purposes objectionable to their faith. FBOs are further protected from civil penalties for employment decisions based on the religious beliefs of the applicant. FBOs are not required to hire or retain individuals whose religious beliefs are contrary to those of the organization. Finally, this bill codifies the language contained with the federal RFRA law, which states that government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion unless such burden furthers a compelling government interest and is the least restrictive means of doing so.
The “Free Exercise” bill took up a lot of time and also received a significant amount of press coverage this session. While it is described as legislation that protects business from government intrusion, I reject that based on the lack of real need for this legislation.
When a bill is dropped, my first question is, “Is this legislation necessary?” In this case I found the answer in my mind to be a clear NO. I have spoken with the sponsors of this bill over the past 2 years and they have yet to show me how someone has been harmed by not having this legislation in place. To date they have been unable to document any case of this.
My second question is, “Does this legislation benefit the state?” Again, I found the answer to be a negative. In fact, states like Indiana and North Carolina, who have passed similar bills, have seen business interests either choose not to do business there or curtail it significantly. The perception of much of the business community, including some of the largest corporations in Georgia, is that this bill amounts to discrimination that they would oppose. With Georgia being the #1 state in the country to do business for the second year in a row, this bill could hurt our economy.
Freedom of Religion is guaranteed by the United States Constitution, and it is my belief that this protection is sufficient. Although I was in a small minority of my party to vote against this bill, it did pass the House with only 10 Republican “No” votes, of which I was one, and zero Republican “No” votes in the Senate. I voted my conscience, but more importantly, with the overwhelming number of my constituents who expressed opposition to this.
With that said, I agree with Governor Deal’s statement when he vetoed the bill regarding any harm that could be documented without this bill in place. “Some people hold grudges (but) let me ask them this: Instead of just having rhetoric why don’t we have examples?” Deal said. “Nobody has ever yet provided me one clear example of anything that has occurred in the state of Georgia that the RFRA bill would have prevented.”
I was in a minority in my party, but stand by my position on this bill, which I have made clear since this bill was introduced in 2015.