By: The New York Times Editorial Board
After Indiana’s disastrous attempt last year to enact a religious-freedom law protecting business owners and others who refuse to serve same-sex couples for religious or moral reasons, one might reasonably have assumed that other states contemplating similar legislation would be chastened into dropping it.
Not so. Republican lawmakers in at least eight states are considering enacting versions of the so-called First Amendment Defense Act — a misleading label suggesting that the First Amendment needs any extra defense, let alone from people who are looking for license to discriminate under the guise of religious freedom.
These brazen measures, going beyond the Indiana law, would create blanket protection for discrimination. That these states would consider such legislation is all the more remarkable given the damage Indiana’s image and economy suffered in the national backlash to its law.
One of the most alarming bills comes out of Georgia, where state lawmakers have cobbled together a dangerous piece of legislation that would prohibit the government from punishing anyone or anything — individuals; businesses; and nonprofit groups, including those that receive taxpayer funds — for discrimination, so long as they claim it was based on their religious views of marriage.
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston spoke this month in favor of a bill stating that religious officials don’t have to perform same-sex marriages that violate their faith.
The bill, which is on the verge of becoming law, would shield those who would refuse service not only to same-sex couples but to anyone they disapprove of, including interracial, interfaith or remarried couples.
The bill started out as a measure to protect members of the clergy from being forced to perform marriages that conflict with their religious beliefs. Of course, this was wholly unnecessary because the First Amendment already provides this protection to churches and religious organizations. But after the state’s House of Representatives passed that measure, the Senate tacked on the far broader language covering virtually any person or group, even without any religious affiliation, and expanding it beyond same-sex couples.
For instance, the bill would offer a blanket defense to a domestic-violence shelter that might reject a single mother and her child because of her marital status. Georgia has no state laws protecting gays and lesbians against discrimination in housing or employment, but even in Atlanta, which does have such protections, the bill would allow a hospital to prohibit a gay man from visiting his sick husband based on its religious views.
Unsurprisingly, hundreds of members of Georgia’s influential business community — including Home Depot, United Parcel Service, Google and AT&T — have joined a coalition against the bill. “No one in Georgia wants to go through what Indiana experienced,” the coalition’s director wrote in an op-ed essay in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week.
The bill’s backers say they are trying to protect religious freedom. But they know full well that the measure is nothing more than a legal shield for discrimination. Georgians are free to believe as they choose, and to say whatever they want to whomever they want about their views on marriage. But when they enter the public sphere, and particularly when they benefit from taxpayer dollars, they are not free to ignore any law that doesn’t align with their personal religious views on marriage.
If Georgia’s House approves this bill, which would do immeasurable harm to the state’s citizens and businesses, Gov. Nathan Deal should veto it.