Following the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision on gay marriage last summer, many state bodies began a backlash against the ruling by doubling down on legislation designed to protect religious people from having to violate their rights to accommodate the rights of the LBGT+ people.
Some of these legislative proposals were nothing short of open discrimination against anyone who does not strictly adhere to certain aspects of religious beliefs. Spurred on by lawsuits about Christian bakers and photographers refusing to work for gay wedding ceremonies and perceiving Christian religious beliefs to be under attack, many people saw these proposals as necessary to protect their rights to free expression of their religious rights. And so, in Georgia, HB757 was drawn up to protect churches, organizations, and businesses from lawsuits that would be brought on by refusing services based on religious beliefs.
The issue with the bill was that they were attempting to violate the rights of one group to satisfy the paranoia of another. There has not been a court case in the history of the United States where a gay couple successfully sued a church, mosque, temple, or synagogue for not performing a ceremony that would have violated the religious beliefs of the religious community. It simply has not happened, and under the First Amendment, it cannot happen.
The government cannot force a church to violate it’s religious beliefs so long as the church is not violating the rights of other people. Gay people might not be able to get married in a specific church, but the church cannot stop gay people from getting married at a courthouse or at any other church or really whatever venue that welcomes them. Laws concerning the legality of discrimination in businesses vary from state to state, but court rules concerning organizations that receive government funding are generally pretty clear that the state cannot endorse religious discrimination.
Regardless, the efforts with this bill pushed forward until the public outcry against marriage equality was matched by local and national sources against discrimination. All major Georgia sports franchises condemned the bill, as did the NFL, who did so by mentioning that Atlanta would not host a Super Bowl if the bill passed. The NCAA also made a point to say that they would be re-evaluating whether they would allow certain events to happen in the state. Major productions studios including Disney and Marvel said that they would cease operations in the state, as did the hit TV show “The Walking Dead”.
Apple, Atlanta based Coca Cola, and other giants of industry all threatened to boycott, relocate or otherwise do business elsewhere if the bill was enacted. Now, all of this could have very well been a bluff, but it is hardly a bluff that the state of Georgia wants to call. This is also to say nothing against to outpouring of criticism from human rights organizations, millions of people on social media, and protestors who called the bill out for being discriminatory.
The legislature tried a last ditch effort to save their budgets from taking the massive hit of the boycotts and removed the wording about businesses being able to discriminate at the last minute before forwarding the bills to Governor Deal. Deal vetoed the bill anyway, stating that he so because the bill opened the door for the state to allow religious discrimination multiple areas. He made note to say that protections already existed for churches to not have to perform ceremonies that violated their beliefs, and that the state of Georgia does not have the legal statutes in place that allowed the lawsuits against the bakers in Colorado or the photographers in Arizona. In effect, the bill would solve no problems that actually exist in Georgia but could lead to severe unintended consequences. Governor Deal even referred to late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s ideas of “negative protection”.
“…rather than telling government what it can do regarding religion, they [the Founders] told government what it could not do, namely, “establish a religion or interfere with the free exercise thereof.”…They made it clear that those liberties were given by God and not by man’s government. Therefore, it was unnecessary to enumerate in statute or constitution what those liberties included.
In light of our history, I find it ironic that today some in the religious community feel it necessary to ask government to confer upon them certain rights and protections. If indeed our religious liberty is conferred by God and not by man-made government, we should need the “hands-off” admonition of the First Amendment to our Constitution. When legislative bodies attempt to do otherwise, the inclusions and omissions in their statutes can lead to discrimination, even though it may be unintentional. That is too great a risk to take.” (source)
The fight is far from over, as the Georgia State House and Senate are looking to see if they can achieve a two-thirds supermajority and override the veto of the governor. For today at least, Nathan Deal seems to have held back the tide against religious discrimination, or at least stopped it from getting worse.