The Brunswick News, Legislators prepared to push religious freedom bill

Getting the Religious Freedom Restoration Act through the Georgia General Assembly will take some doing, but coastal legislators say they’re prepared to give it a push.

Opponents claim the act is discriminatory; proponents like Reps. Jeff Jones, R-St. Simons Island, and Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, contend it protects the rights of all citizens to follow their religious beliefs.

To Jones, it is one of the most important pieces of legislation lawmakers will tackle this session.

“There are many vitally important issues facing our state — equal access to quality education for all children, controlling government growth and the insatiable appetite for increasing taxes, attracting good jobs, protecting the Floridan Aquifer, our pristine water supply, maintaining our critical transportation infrastructure. And the list goes on.

“However, the single biggest issue facing Georgians — and Americans — is protecting everyone’s fundamental rights and freedoms, both God-given and constitutionally guaranteed. If we lose our rights and freedoms, then all of the other important stuff is all but moot.”

Congress passed such an act under President Bill Clinton in 1993. The Supreme Court later ruled it would be unconstitutional to apply it to the states, prompting legislatures to pass their own versions. State Sen. William Ligon, R-St. Simons Island, is a sponsor of Senate Bill 129, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The measure stalled in the state House of Representatives when opponents said it would lead to “legal” discrimination.

Jones said the RFA law that passed the Senate in 2015 “exactly mirrors” the federal version. He said the legislation is needed.

“Enacting the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in Georgia is a perfect example of the practical application of the state of Georgia protecting our rights and freedoms,” he said. “I am a strong and vocal supporter of RFRA and am working to encourage the House leadership to bring it to the House floor for a vote. From my conversations with fellow representatives, I am reasonably confident that the RFRA bill will pass, but House leadership has to first allow it to come to a vote.”

Jones said 30 states have successfully passed similar measures since 1993. He said the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community is wrong in its claims against the legislation.

“Without exception, there has not been a single successful court case proving that RFRA’s passage created or caused discrimination against the LGBT community, or against any other Americans, which is the claim of the LGBT community,” he said. “The LGBT community, who represent less than 1 percent of our population, vociferously opposes RFRA’s passage in Georgia claiming RFRA is fundamentally discriminatory against them.

“Over the summer, Sen. Ligon and I sponsored showings of the movie ‘One Generation Away’ at various locations in Glynn and McIntosh counties. The central message of the movie is that the loss of our religious freedoms is never more than one generation away, as exampled by the Hobby Lobby case, protestations against the Mount Soledad Cross in San Diego and wedding service providers in the Northwest, who were forced out of business by pressure from the LGBT community.”

Rep. Spencer said Georgians deserve the same protections as everyone else.

“Implementing a state RFRA would send a clear message that people with varying religious beliefs can expect that the state and our local governments will respect and honor those beliefs,” Spencer said. “While some have argued that RFRA will be used to discriminate, there are no cases at the federal level or in the 30 state jurisdictions with RFRA in place, where a court has upheld or protected an act of discrimination.

“My hope is that the bill will come to the floor for a vote, but House leadership determines that. If enough representatives are pushed by their constituents to move this bill, then the rank and file can put pressure on leadership to move the bill.”

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