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Unintended consequences of 'religious freedom'
Georgia report
Tom Crawford
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that reports on state government and politics. - photo by File photo

If you’ve been watching TV, you surely have seen the controversy in Kentucky, where a court clerk has been in and out of jail for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses on the grounds that it violates her religious beliefs.

Georgia has avoided that kind of media frenzy largely because probate judges here have done what they promised to do when they took the oath of office: Uphold the law.

“You know, you got to follow the law,” Colquitt County Probate Judge Wesley Lewis told a reporter. “It is what it is. And you just have to follow it.”

The Supreme Court has settled this particular issue: Same-sex marriages are now the law of the land.

The battle over “religious freedom,” however, will not end anytime soon. It will be a major issue in the next General Assembly session. There are several legislators determined to push ahead with a bill allowing businesses to discriminate against gays when the owners claim that same-sex marriage violates their religious beliefs.

It’s too early to say whether this bill will pass, but if it does, there could be all kinds of unintended consequences for the state.

There’s the business angle. Major corporations like Delta Air Lines, UPS, Coca-Cola and Home Depot have all expressed reservations about the passage of a religious-freedom law.

They have taken this stand for a fundamental business reason: They can’t make a profit if they only serve customers who are Protestant heterosexuals. Their bottom line also depends on selling their goods and services to people who might be gays, atheists, agnostics or non-Christians.  Diversity is a major concern for business leaders.

GE wants to move its corporate headquarters out of Connecticut and is looking at Georgia as one of the potential sites to relocate. The passage of a “religious freedom” bill that is perceived as being anti-gay might very well be a factor that persuades the corporation’s executives to look elsewhere.

Bob Barr, who was a Republican congressman from Marietta for eight years and the Libertarian presidential candidate in 2008, offered this cautionary note about the pitfalls of “religious freedom” legislation:

“Imagine waking up to the news that a Quaker county sheriff is denying concealed-carry permits to citizens because of his religious objection to violence; or, a Muslim DMV supervisor in Dearborn, Michigan, has ordered his staff to refuse to issue driver’s licenses to women out of a religious objection to women behind the wheel. These are among the realities that await should we make Kim Davis, the embattled county clerk from Rowan County, Kentucky, an archetype for ‘religious freedom’ in America.”

Barr makes an excellent point. A religious-freedom law would apply to more people than just Christians. It would extend those rights and privileges to Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Wiccans, satanists and other people belonging to any group that claims to be a religion.

Passage of a religious-freedom bill also would give people in Georgia who have ever been fired or disciplined on the job the temptation to go to court and sue their employer by claiming they were dismissed because of their “sincerely held religious belief.”

Sounds absurd? It’s already happening.  

Consider the case of Charee Stanley. For three years, she was a flight attendant with ExpressJet Airlines. After she converted to Islam, she declared that her newly found faith would not allow her to serve alcohol to the airline’s passengers.

ExpressJet tried to accommodate Stanley’s wishes for a while, but other employees complained that she was being exempted from duties that everyone else was required to perform. The airline eventually suspended her, and she has now filed a federal complaint against the airline.

If a religious-freedom law were to be enacted in Georgia, you would see a wave of similar complaints filed in virtually every courthouse by disgruntled employees, and they wouldn’t have a problem finding lawyers eager to represent them.

That rush to the courthouse would be great news for attorneys, but not so good for those who actually have to run a business.

Religious freedom is a basic right of American citizens. But for more than two centuries, we’ve already had a protection in place for that right. It’s called the First Amendment to the Constitution.

You can reach Crawford at tcrawford@gareport.com.

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