—By Dana Liebelson
A bill moving swiftly through the Georgia House of Representatives would allow business owners who believe homosexuality is a sin to openly discriminate against gay Americans by denying them employment or banning them from restaurants and hotels.
The proposal, dubbed the Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, would allow any individual or for-profit company to ignore Georgia laws—including anti-discrimination and civil rights laws—that “indirectly constrain” exercise of religion. Atlanta, for example, prohibits discrimination against LGBT residents seeking housing, employment, and public accommodations. But the state bill could trump Atlanta’s protections.
The Georgia bill, which was introduced last week and was scheduled to be heard in subcommittee Monday afternoon, was sponsored by six state representatives (some of them Democrats). A similar bill has been introduced in the state Senate.
The Georgia House bill’s text is largely identical to controversial legislation that passed in Arizona last week. The Arizona measure—which is currently awaiting Republican Gov. Jan Brewer’s signature—has drawn widespread protests from LGBT groups and local businesses. One lawmaker who voted for the Arizona bill, Sen. Steve Pierce (R-Prescott), went so far as to publicly change his mind.
Georgia and Arizona are only the latest states to push religious freedom bills that could nullify discrimination laws. The new legislation is part of a wave of state laws drafted in response to a New Mexico lawsuit in which a photographer was sued for refusing to work for a same-sex couple.
Unlike similar bills introduced in Kansas, Tennessee, and South Dakota, the Georgia and Arizona bills do not explicitly target same-sex couples. But that difference could make the impact of the Georgia and Arizona bills even broader. Legal experts, including Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel for the ACLU, warn that Georgia and Arizona’s religious-freedom bills are so sweeping that they open the door for discrimination against not only gay people, but other groups as well. The New Republic noted that under the Arizona bill, “a restaurateur could deny service to an out-of-wedlock mother, a cop could refuse to intervene in a domestic dispute if his religion allows for husbands beating their wives, and a hotel chain could refuse to rent rooms to Jews, Hindus, or Muslims.”
“The government should not allow individuals or corporations to use religion as an excuse to discriminate [or] to deny other access to basic healthcare and safety precautions,” Maggie Garrett, legislative director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, wrote in a letter to a Georgia House Judiciary subcommittee on Sunday.
State representative Sam Teasley, the first sponsor listed on the bill, did not respond to request for comment Monday.
“The bill was filed and is being pushed solely because that’s what all the cool conservative kids are doing, and because it sends a message of defiance to those who believe that gay Americans ought to be treated the same as everybody else,” writes Jay Bookman, a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Passing it would seriously stain the reputation of Georgia and the Georgia Legislature.”