GAINESVILLE, Ga. — A group of Cooperative Baptist pastors gathered Tuesday at First Baptist Church, Gainesville, Ga., for a luncheon and conversation on religious freedom with Holly Hollman, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), a Washington, D.C.-based education and advocacy organization that protects the free exercise of religion and defends against its establishment by government.
The event, sponsored by Faith in Public Life, a faith-based public policy group based in Washington, D.C., comes amid a contentious debate across the state over pending religious freedom legislation. On March 5, the Georgia Senate unexpectedly passed the “Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act” or Senate Bill 129, which forbids the government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion unless doing so is essential to achieve a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of achieving that interest.
Opponents have stressed that SB 129 may weaken local anti-discrimination ordinances in Georgia cities, including Atlanta, that protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Meanwhile, supporters contend that the purpose of the religious freedom bill is to make it more difficult for local governments to infringe on the freedoms of Georgia residents.
Legal scholars say that although the Senate bill closely mirrors the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, it differs in small but important ways, imposing a heightened requirement on state and local governments to justify burdening a person’s religious exercise.
Hollman pointed to the inclusion in SB 129 of new language that diverted from the federal RFRA standard, calling for the government’s compelling interest to be of the “highest magnitude.”
The federal RFRA was the product of years of legal scholars studying the language and working to agree on a standard, she said. RFRA does not dictate outcomes, but it allows claims of sincerely held religious belief that are substantially burdened by the government to have a day in court. The BJC led the coalition of nearly 70 organizations from across the political and religious spectrum that urged Congress to pass RFRA in 1993.
“We at the Baptist Joint Committee oppose state RFRAs where states monkey with the language to make sure the religious adherent wins,” Hollman said. “We’re not ready to throw out the standard of RFRA. We continue to stand by that federal standard and watch closely what courts do.”
Hollman also highlighted the public rhetoric surrounding the religious freedom legislation in Georgia, pointing out exaggerated assertions that the Georgia bill would help abusers and the Ku Klux Klan.
“These claims are wild hyperbole and unhelpful to religious freedom conversations in Georgia,” Hollman said. “Unfortunately, this is what gets people’s attention and this is a starting point, rather than having a helpful conversation.”
Hollman emphasized the role of the courts in rejecting frivolous lawsuits.
“You can assert a lot of claims and file a lot of claims, but that doesn’t mean you should win or that you should be alarmed. That’s what the courts do — they throw out bad claims all the time.”
Since the federal RFRA became law in 1993, very few claims have prevailed in the courts, Hollman said, citing recent legal research. She noted that unsuccessful RFRA claims have included religion-based defense to marijuana charges, religion-based defenses to sexual misconduct (including clergy sexual abuse) and religious defenses against paying child support.
“Courts remain skeptical of granting religious exemptions when the exemptions result in harm to third parties,” Hollman said.
She thanked the group for their support of religious freedom and encouraged the Cooperative Baptist pastors to continue to be faithful to the foundational Baptist and biblical commitment to an uncoerced faith.
“You are seen [in your communities] as responsible people who not only care about your own religious freedom but religious freedom for everyone,” Hollman said. “I feel like we need to have more conversations and less political rhetoric where we’re talking about preventing someone’s rights. I hope the BJC can continue to be helpful in these conversations. …I’m proud of you and appreciate you being here.”
SB 129 is now in the Georgia House of Representatives for consideration. The Georgia legislature concludes its business on April 2.
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