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‘Religious freedom’ advances on Legislature’s deadline day as Georgia culture wars rage on

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Ross Williams, Georgia Recorder
February 29, 2024

Thursday was Crossover Day in the Georgia Legislature, the deadline for bills to easily pass from either the House or the Senate, and culture war partisans had a few reasons to celebrate, or mourn, depending on point of view.

After years of trying, the Senate passed the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, a longtime dream of conservative politicians and activists.

Conservative politicians and activists also made one of their newer dreams come true with the passage of a bill cutting ties with the American Library Association, a library support and accrediting body some Republicans say has become too progressive.

Other culture war issues did not make the cut, including bills aimed at school bathroom and library use.

Religious Freedom

Eight years after then-Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a controversial religious freedom bill, a different bill with the same aim passed the state Senate.

Acworth Republican Sen. Ed Setzler’s Senate Bill 180 states that the government may “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” only if it does so “in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” and “the least restrictive means of furthering such compelling governmental interest.”

Setzler gave examples including a Muslim woman in Florida who could not remove her facial covering to be photographed for a driver’s license. Setzler said Florida’s religious freedom law allowed her to be photographed in a private room by a woman.

“It largely helps people in minority religious space, but it doesn’t provide everybody of course, to make sure the government has to prove a compelling reason, and in accomplishing the compelling reason, they do that in the least restrictive means possible. The decency, the human decency, of allowing the Muslim woman, who piously believes she needs to wear a full face guard in public, allowing her to have her photo for her driver’s license made in a private room by a female photographer.”

Decency wasn’t the word on Stone Mountain Democratic Sen. Kim Jackson’s mind. Jackson, the state’s first and only openly LGBTQ+ senator, called the bill a “permission slip” to discriminate against families like hers.

 Sen. Kim Jackson. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

“This is my reality and my fear,” she said. “My fear that my child’s daycare can turn us away. That a hotel can refuse me entry. That we can be denied access to any number of services that every other Georgian has rights to. The gas station that refuses service, the restaurant that won’t seat us, the physician who denies care for my child, all because they have a religious objection toward me and my family. Across the country, RFRAs have already opened the door for discrimination in public health, child welfare and adoptions, marriage-related services, employment, and public accommodations.”

Deal’s veto of the previous religious freedom legislation came amid pressure from major Georgia-based businesses that said the legislation could make it harder to attract workers to the state.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce and Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce released a joint statement opposing Senate Bill 180.

“For decades, Georgia has benefited from a positive working relationship between the business community and our elected leaders to promote our state as a center for global commerce. Georgia’s stable governance attracts industry and has served our citizens well, and we oppose any efforts, including SB 180, that would undermine the state’s strong reputation we have built together,” the business group’s statement said.

Cole Muzio, president of the influential conservative lobbying group Frontline Policy Action, celebrated the bill’s passage.

“Passage of RFRA by the state Senate brings us one step closer toward restoring our nation’s founding right,” he said in an email to supporters. “The balancing test provided in SB 180 is fair, right, consistent with federal law and in accordance with what Gov. Kemp campaigned on.”

If Gov. Brian Kemp is to sign or veto the bill, it will first need to pass the state House. It will have until the legislative session is set to gavel out March 28 to do so.

Libraries

A watered-down version of a bill pulling Georgia out from the American Library Association made it through the Senate. Author Sen. Larry Walker, a Perry Republican, said he got clued in on the ALA after his local library used an ALA grant to buy books about diversity and LGBTQ+ issues, some of which he said were in the children’s section.

He said he went on to find out the current ALA president described herself in a tweet as a Marxist lesbian.

 Sen. Larry Walker. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

“Prior to taking on this issue, I put libraries in the same category as mom and apple pie, and I was shocked to find that the havens for learning that I envisioned where children’s imaginations could run free and unhindered to find inspiration for their future and the legacy of knowledge accumulated by civil society could become a political battleground for a radical agenda pushed down by this Chicago organization, the American Library Association.”

The ALA accredits the schools that train librarians, and Walker said under his bill, Georgia universities must pay for that accreditation with private funds rather than state money. Libraries in the state cannot use private funds or state money to become members of the ALA.

Atlanta Democratic Sen. Elena Parent characterized the bill as a political ploy and referenced data showing Georgia near the bottom of the rankings for child literacy by state.

“I really, colleagues, do find it deeply ironic, in a state where two-thirds of kids cannot read on grade level, that we have so many more bills addressing what children should or should not be able to read, instead of focusing on the actual five-alarm fire problem, the problem that many of them cannot read well, if at all. That is the problem that we should be discussing today. That is the money we should be discussing putting into our budget.”

Ahead of their time

Several bills hoped for or dreaded by culture warriors failed to make it to the all-important deadline.

Bills ending sex education for elementary schoolers, making school librarians liable for distributing materials deemed harmful to minors and restricting transgender students to the bathroom matching the gender listed on their birth certificates did not move forward.

But fans of culture clashes should not grieve or celebrate just yet. Crossover day marks the end of a bill’s ability to pass the smoothest way, but “dead” bills can find new life if grafted to other legislation, sometimes in surprising ways.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Georgia Recorder under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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