Yesterday, Governor Nathan Deal announced that he would veto HB 757, a broad religious exemption bill that would have sanctioned discrimination against LGBT and other Georgians. A Frankenstein-esque combination of what had previously been several different bills, HB 757 would have violated the Establishment Clause by stripping many Georgians of their legal rights in order to accommodate the preferences of religious actors. Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project recently released a memo, signed by many Georgian legal scholars, explaining why the bill was unnecessary, discriminatory, and unconstitutional.
Two of Georgia’s three biggest cities—Atlanta and Savannah—both have municipal ordinances banning some forms of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and others may follow suit. Atlanta’s ordinance is particularly broad, banning LGBT and marital status discrimination in housing, public accommodations, and private employment. HB 757 would have allowed religious organizations, individuals, and businesses to ignore local ordinances and discriminate against LGBT Georgians, essentially prioritizing anti-LGBT religious beliefs over the rights and liberties of others. A few sections of the bill went even further, and could have sanctioned discrimination on the basis of race, sex, nationality, religion, disability, and pregnancy.
Governor Deal’s veto is an important step in the right direction, but the debate over a religious right to discriminate is far from over, including in Georgia. Legislators who support HB 757 have already called for a special session to override the Governor’s veto, and many other states have introduced bills similar to HB 757.
Below is a run-down of some of the worst provisions of the bill. The list also notes similarities between sections of HB 757 and bills that have been introduced in other states across the county:
- One section of the bill would have given faith-based organizations, including schools, universities, and certain non-profits, the right to refuse (1) to rent property for events that they find objectionable; and (2) to provide “social, educational, or charitable services that violate [their] sincerely held religious belief.” Georgians could therefore have been denied services ranging from adoption to higher education to hospice care based on their sexual orientation or gender identity—or even based on their race or nationality. Moreover, faith-based organizations could refuse to provide nearly any service otherwise required by Georgia laws and administrative rules—for example, regulations governing requirements for care at day care facilities, drug treatment centers, or nursing homes. Bills that offer similar protection to businesses that with to discriminate are being considered in Mississippi, Missouri, and many other states.
- Another provision stated “[a]ll individuals shall be free to attend or not attend” marriages and other rites at their discretion. At first glance, the provision seems merely silly, since it’s difficult to imagine a circumstance in which one would be legally required to attend a wedding in the first place. However, if the word “attend” were to be read broadly, the bill could have given court clerks, officials, and even judges the state-sanctioned right to discriminate against Georgians exercising their Constitutional right to marry. It could also have allowed businesses that sell wedding-related services—such as musicians, florists, or caterers—to discriminate against customers based on religious beliefs, since providing these services may require attending a wedding. This section of the bill contained no ban against invidious discrimination otherwise prohibited by state or federal law, and therefore may have empowered government officials and wedding-related service providers to refuse to attend interfaith or interracial weddings. Allowing state actors to discriminate poses additional Establishment Clause concerns, since it gives the appearance of State support for a particular religious belief. At least eight states, including Kim Davis’s home state of Kentucky, have or are considering bills that would allow government employees to discriminate.
- A third part of HB 757 stated that no faith-based organization “shall be required to hire or retain as an employee any person whose religious beliefs or practices or lack of either are not in accord with the faith based organization’s sincerely held religious belief,” except as required by the Georgia or federal Constitutions or by federal law. This section would have allowed faith-based organizations to fire employees expressly for their sexual orientation or gender identity. It could also lead to discrimination against pregnant women and single parents, especially single mothers, as well as the enforcement of rigid, invasive, and discriminatory codes of conduct. This section of the bill is somewhat similar to one introduced in Missouri, which aims to remove religious organizations from the definition of “employer” within the state’s human rights law.
- Finally, the bill also contained a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) provision modeled on the federal RFRA. While the RFRA contained a caveat that it should not “be construed to … [p]ermit invidious discrimination on any grounds prohibited by federal or state law,” it did not require compliance with municipal laws banning sexual orientation, gender identity, and marital status discrimination. It therefore would have invited individuals and businesses to assert religion-based justifications for avoiding compliance with local anti-discrimination laws. Over a dozen states from Iowa to New Mexico have introduced RFRAs.
While HB 757 is gone for now, it’s far from forgotten. There’s still a chance that legislators could override the Governor’s veto, and dozens of similar bills are still waiting to be picked up in states nationwide. It’s therefore important to understand that the veto of HB 757 was not just a win for LGBT equality or an acknowledgment that discrimination is bad for business. Rather, it was a necessary step to preserve the balance between religious and secular rights enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.