By Bob Allen
Religious liberty isn’t a license to discriminate, a Georgia Baptist pastor said at a news conference Jan. 28 at the Georgia State Capitol convened by opponents to proposed legislation preventing “government overreach” in matters of religious expression.
Julie Pennington-Russell, lead pastor of First Baptist Church of Decatur, joined fellow Baptist clergy in a faith-based appeal asking lawmakers to reject self-described “religious freedom” legislation they regard as potentially discriminatory.
“Freedom of religion is one of our most fundamental rights as Americans,” Pennington-Russell said. “That’s why it’s protected in the First Amendment of the Constitution, but religious freedom doesn’t give any of us a right to harm or to discriminate against others.”
Pennington-Russell is one of more than 100 clergy from many different denominations across Georgia who signed a letter released at the beginning of the legislative session urging legislators not to pass religious-freedom bills they say are unnecessary and potentially harmful.
Pennington-Russell, who served on the board of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in Washington, said the bill currently before Georgia lawmakers “has the potential to do genuine harm,” from discrimination against gays and lesbians to individuals claiming a right to ignore certain laws based on their religious belief.
She said it could also give cover to churches that invoke religious freedom to avoid their responsibility in cases involving alleged child abuse. “We do not need a new law in Georgia that would make it any more difficult to convict child abusers,” she said.
The press conference was one of two on the same day featuring Baptists from opposite sides of the aisle. Leaders of the Georgia Baptist Convention planned a press conference earlier in the morning to formally support legislation they say is needed to stop the encroachment of government on religious turf.
Earlier Georgia Baptist officials rallied at the Capitol on behalf of Atlanta’s fire chief, who was fired for writing a Christian book the mayor said compromised his ability to work effectively with LGBT employees. This time, the gathering was expected to include Rep. Sam Teasley, sponsor of the controversial “religious freedom” bill HB 29, and state Sen. Josh McKoon, author of a similar measure to be introduced soon in the Senate.
Last week a group of 18 legal scholars outlined concerns about the proposed legislation in a 10-page letter saying the bill should not be enacted “without serious revision.”
As written, the scholars said, terms of the current bill “are tilted heavily in favor of religious freedom claims and against competing civil rights concerns” such as businesses refusing service to individuals on basis of their religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.
Pennington-Russell said religious freedom “is vitally important to Baptists around the world” but it extends to all people — “not just Baptists, not just Christians, but people of all faiths, and even people of no faith.”
James Lamkin, pastor of Northside Drive Baptist Church in Atlanta, said Georgia citizens and elected officials must decide if they want to move the state forward or back in time.
“As a Georgia Baptist, I do not want discrimination to happen in my name,” Lamkin said. “Everyone has a right to their religious beliefs, but nobody has the right to discriminate. This is Atlanta, the home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We don’t teach hate here.”
Pastor Timothy McDonald III of First Iconium Baptist Church said he believes passage of the bill would have unintended consequences.
“I worked on the federal RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] in 1993,” McDonald said. “But this is not 1993.”
The press conference was part of an ongoing campaign by Georgia clergy to prevent passage of controversial “religious freedom” bills in the state. Similar state measures are also being considered in North Carolina and Texas.
The Baptist Joint Committee was instrumental in securing passage of the federal RFRA in 1993. The Supreme Court later struck down a part of the law that applied to the states. Since then several states have enacted their own RFRA-type laws to bolster religious-freedom protections determined not covered by the First Amendment in a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1990.
The BJC advises that state RFRA laws need to be written narrowly, allowing appropriate accommodation of religious exercise without infringing unnecessarily on the competing rights of others.
Pennington-Russell said the federal RFRA “is a good law” that “”deserved the bipartisan support it received,” but the latest efforts in Georgia “have the potential of weakening that good work and hijacking that bipartisan bill towards a new redefinition of ‘religious liberty.’”
Lamkin, who also helped with the passage of RFRA in 1993, said support for that measure emerged from a broad coalition of religious perspectives ranging “from James Dobson to Unitarian Universalists” and out of an imminent threat to particular protections previously recognized by the courts prior to the Supreme Court decision in Employment Division v. Smith.
In contrast, Lamkin said he thinks the Georgia legislation is unnecessary, because guarantees of freedom of conscience and religion already in the federal and state constitutions are working.
“Additional pages of legislation may be offered out of good intentions, but I believe unintended consequences will ensue and make the issue more confusing and complicated and litigious,” he said.