Yesterday under the Gold Dome, Senator Marty Harbin (R-16 of Tyrone), along with 18 other senators, reminded us religious freedom is not a lost cause in Georgia! Senator Harbin introduced legislation (SB 233) that would enact into state law what the U.S. Congress passed in 1993 for federal law, known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
This is quite a challenge for these 19 senators – sponsors Harbin, Jesse Stone (R-23, Waynesboro), Chuck Payne (R-54, Dalton), William Ligon, Jr. (R-3, Brunswick), Steve Gooch (R-51, Dahlonega), and Michael Williams (R-27, Cumming) alongside supporters Bill Heath (R-31, Bremen), Bruce Thompson (R-14, White), Lee Anderson (R-24, Grovetown), Matt Brass (R-28, Newnan), John Wilkinson (R-50, Toccoa), Rick Jeffares (R-17, McDonough), Frank Ginn (R-47, Danielsville), Burt Jones (R-25, Jackson), Tyler Harper (R-7, Ocilla), Chuck Hufstetler (R-52, Rome), Mike Dugan (R-30, Carrollton), Josh McKoon (R-29, Columbus), and Jack Hill (R-4, Reidsville) – since last year Governor Nathan Deal vetoed religious-liberty legislation known as the Free Exercise Protection Act (HB 757). That legislation included a Pastor Protection Act, a First Amendment Defense Act, and a RFRA.
What makes Senator Harbin’s legislation different from last year’s bill is it only addresses the RFRA portion, putting into law a state version of what Governor Deal voted for when he was a congressman in 1993. This legislation is very simple – it merely provides that the RFRA language in the federal code will also apply to religious-liberty questions arising under Georgia law.
Enactment of SB 233 will bring Georgia into line with over 30 states that have acted to preserve the highest level of religious-liberty protection for their citizens. See the map of the states regarding RFRA above.
Under the federal RFRA, a claim brought under the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment must be analyzed using “strict scrutiny.” That means the government may not substantially burden a citizen’s exercise of religious beliefs unless it has a compelling interest in doing so, and unless it uses the least restrictive means in achieving that compelling interest. (The Hobby Lobby case, in which the Supreme Court held that Christian business-owners couldn’t be forced to pay for employees’ abortion-inducing drugs, was decided under the federal RFRA.) Senator Harbin’s SB 233 would merely apply this analysis to cases arising under state law in Georgia.
President Bill Clinton, who signed into law the federal RFRA in 1993, put it this way, “But let us never believe that the freedom of religion imposes on any of us some responsibility to run from our convictions. Let us instead respect one another’s faiths, fight to the death to preserve the right of every American to practice whatever convictions he or she has, but bring our values back to the table of American discourse to heal our troubled land.”
Thank you, Senator Harbin, for leading the way in guaranteeing that Georgians will have the same rights the federal RFRA affords prisoners in federal prisons and soldiers on military bases. Georgians deserve the same protection of their religious liberty as they would in cases of freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly. See the map of the federal RFRA in Georgia and the different levels of First Amendment protection at right.
Please begin contacting your state senator now and ask him or her to co-sponsor this legislation and vote in favor of it when it comes to the floor of the Senate. Find your senator’s contact info here.
Begin praying now that those in Senate leadership positions will move quickly to get this legislation over to the House and on the Governor’s desk! All of this is important because religious freedom is never a lost cause!
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