Katelyn Umholtz, RFRA bill, gay marriage in Georgia a fight over state control, The Red & Black

A recently ruled court case now allows gay couples to marry in the state of Alabama. But for those in the state’s neighbor to the east, fewer opportunities exist.

Susan Haire, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science, said the two conservative states’ politics shouldn’t be compared, as the ruling has more to do with the timing and number of cases.

“[Georgia] didn’t have the same litigation flowing like some of the other states did,” Haire said. “Part of this is just timing. There were a number of states that had bans, and I’m really not sure why it’s the case that cases were slow to develop in Georgia.”

Central vs. state authority

As it stands now, Georgia is one of only three states that bans gay marriage and has no court ruling to lift it. Haire said there is a court case in Georgia that is in the pre-trial phase, but the Supreme Court will likely wait until June to decide whether gay marriage will be legal in all 50 states.

Even the Court’s decision to take on this issue has created a heated debate between states and the federal government about who has the power to regulate marriage. And the U.S. Constitution, the one document supposed to provide answers for these issues, is unclear on the subject.

Alex Rowell, president of the UGA Young Democrats, points to the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment as evidence for why it’s the federal government’s responsibility to legalize gay marriage.

“It’s a constitutional issue,” he said. “Under the equal protection clause, it’s pretty clear that there’s a right to marry someone of your choice, same sex or heterosexual.”

Leah Blackman, who identifies as gay, said the issue should be federalized.

“There are in the world currently 20 countries in which same sex marriage is legal. The U.S. is not one of them,” said Blackman, a freshman political science and international affairs major from Jefferson. “There are 76 countries in which being gay is criminalized, and in 10 of those, it’s punishable by death.

Blackman said she considers her lack of ability to marry inherent discrimination and a major human rights violation.

Both Rowell and Haire said, based on trends and the current political environment, they expect the Supreme Court to rule that banning same sex marriage is unconstitutional, though it will be a close vote.

Religious freedom vs. discrimination

Many states with bans on gay marriage are also expecting the Supreme Court’s ruling, which Rowell said could correlate with why some of them are trying to pass Religious Freedom Restoration Acts.

“You can see it in the rhetoric from the people that are pushing state level RFRAs now,” Rowell said. “It’s very much a last effort when they’re seeing gay marriage come to their state, and they want to try to stand against that any way they can. It’s definitely a push back against the gay rights movement.”

But Grant Thomas, executive director of the UGA College Republicans, said RFRAs serve a much different purpose.

He said there have been issues where local and state governments have not recognized certain group’s religious rights, and Georgia’s RFRA is seeking to protect them.

“Supporters of the bill say that legislation is needed to protect individuals from state and local governments intruding on their religious rights,” Thomas said. “Right now, the burden of proof is on the individual to prove that the government infringed on their religious liberties. This law would flip it around where state and local governments would have to prove that they have a compelling government interest to infringe on someone’s religious rights.”

Thomas said the issue is not with Georgia’s RFRA, but rather that Georgia does not have civil rights legislation and that the LGBT community is not considered a protected class.

Even if local ordinances said private individuals and businesses could not discriminate against the LGBT community, the RFRA could be used as an override if that person feels his or her religious beliefs are being infringed.

Thomas said adding an anti-discrimination amendment to the bill would be the smartest way to make both sides happy.

But the bill was tabled when an anti-discrimination amendment was brought up. Thomas said some lawmakers thought adding it would gut the bill.

Anthony Kreis, a Ph.D. candidate in the departments of political science and public administration and policy, said he predicted the bill would die.

“I’m pretty confident in saying it’s not going to be law this year, but it will certainly come back next year,” Kreis said.

Equality vs. liberty

While many students on campus said it is important for the LGBT community to have equal rights, some worry it will be done at the expense of others’ religious liberties.

Rebecca Staple, a senior classical culture and Latin major from Anchorage, Alaska, is the president of Students for Life at UGA and describes herself as a “pro-life feminist.”

Stapleford said equality for the LGBT community is just as important as the freedom of religious believers.

“In terms of equality, yes, it should be at the federal level,” Stapleford said. “But I think people need conscience protections, too, because what I’ve seen is a disturbing trend towards penalizing private organizations like Christian universities that have certain religious stances. The government needs to recognize religious freedom as well.”

In the coming months, Thomas said the issue will receive about as much reaction as the RFRA bill did.

The LGBT community will praise the Supreme Court for finally recognizing their rights, while the religious rights activists will see this as infringing on their religious liberties, he said.

It will be tough, he said, but maybe conservatives should view this issue in a different, more business-friendly way.

“Since the Republicans have a platform that is focused on job creation and bettering the economy, the last thing we want to do is discriminate against people,” Thomas said. “At the end of the day, your business will drive away customers if you’re discriminating against people.”

RFRA bill, gay marriage in Georgia a fight over state control – The Red and Black _ Uganews