Georgia Republicans Say Religious Liberty Needs Protection, But Democrats Warn Of Discrimination

Georgia State Senator Ed Setzler, R- Acworth, presents SB 180, The Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act, during Crossover Day on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024  in Atlanta. (Matthew Pearson/WABE via AP)
Georgia State Senator Ed Setzler, R- Acworth, presents SB 180, The Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act, during Crossover Day on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024 in Atlanta. (Matthew Pearson/WABE via AP)
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ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia Republicans are voting to protect religious rights from being trampled by state and local governments, while Democrats warn that the long-disputed measure opens the door for people and groups to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people in the name of religion.

The Senate voted 33-19 for Senate Bill 180 on Thursday, sending it to the House for more debate.

It's a new flareup in an old debate in Georgia, where lawmakers eight years ago passed a different version of the measure. Then-Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, vetoed it in 2016 under pressure from members of the business community who said they feared it would hurt their ability to attract employees and tourists.

This time around the measure is being pushed in an election year when all lawmakers are up for reelection and Republican leaders have become more conservative.

The bill mirrors a 1993 federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says that a government must show a compelling interest to force someone to go against their sincerely held religious beliefs and, when it does so, must use the least restrictive means possible.

Republican Sen. Ed Setzler of Acworth said Georgia needs its own religious protection bill because the federal law doesn't protect against attacks on religion by state and local governments. That means a local government might deny things like permission to distribute religious literature or a zoning permit for a church without giving enough deference to religious freedom, supporters say.

“It simply makes the government pause and think, do we have a compelling interest in this, and if we do, are we accommodating people’s religious faith in every way possible,” Setzler said.

Opponents warn that people and private groups will use the law to do things like deny birth control coverage to their employees, and that the legislation could blow holes in local laws that ban discrimination.

“We are one of only three states in the nation that don’t have an anti-discrimination law,” said Sen. Kim Jackson, a Stone Mountain Democrat. “We don’t have protections set in place if someone tries to abuse this law.”

Jackson, who is lesbian, also said she fears more personal repercussions: that she could be denied service at her adopted son's daycare, for example, or a room at a hotel or even towing service if broken down at the side of the road. In some cases she might win a lawsuit later, Jackson said, but she — and others — stand to suffer in the meantime.

“Legislation like this is an invitation. It’s an invitation to Georgians to consider how they want to discriminate. It’s a permission slip,” Jackson said. “If there is anyone who you love, when people look at them, they think they’re different than the norm, this legislation puts them at risk.”

Opponents also say the law could be bad for the economy by driving out LGBTQ+ residents and companies that employ them. The Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce released a joint statement opposing the measure, saying that after decades of promoting Georgia as a destination for business, the bill “would undermine the state’s strong reputation we have built together.”

Setzler, a longtime supporter of the measure, calls such fears overblown.

“Never has a RFRA statute been used to back up invidious discrimination,” he said, adding that the law would be applied on a case-by-case basis without any prejudgments.

Christian conservative groups celebrated the bill's forward movement after years of little progress.

“This development is a profound statement that Georgia values and safeguards the right of its citizens to practice their faith without fear of government overreach,” said Cole Muzio, the president of Frontline Policy, a conservative group close to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.