Friday, March 18, 2016

Georgia Legislature Passes Wide-Ranging Religious Freedom Bill

As reported by CNN, the Georgia General Assembly yesterday passed HB 757 (full text), the Free Exercise Protection Act. It contains wide-ranging religious freedom protections:
  1. The bill protects clergy from any civil suit or tax penalty for performing or refusing to perform any marriage or other religious rite. It also provides that any individual is free to attend or not attend any marriage ceremony or other religious rite.

  2. The bill prohibits local governments from requiring any business to operate on Saturday or Sunday.

  3. The bill provides that churches and religiously affiliated organizations are not required to rent space to another person for an event that is objectionable to the religious organization. Also such organizations are not required to provide social, educational or charitable services that violate the organization's sincerely held religious beliefs.

  4. The bill provides that no faith-based organization is required to hire or retain as an employee any person whose religious beliefs or practices (or lack of either) are not in accord with the organization's sincerely held religious belief.

  5. The bill enacts RFRA language. The government may not substantially burden a person's religious exercise, except in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest that is furthered by the least restrictive means.  This provision, however is limited by several exceptions, including a provision that the RFRA language shall not be construed to "permit invidious discrimination on any grounds prohibited by federal or state law." It should be noted that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity are not prohibited by Georgia law, or by federal law as traditionally interpreted.

  6. The bill waives sovereign immunity for suits seeking injunctive or declaratory relief or reasonable attorney's fees in various suits against the state under the statute.
Gov. Nathan Deal has said that he will veto any bill that allows discrimination in order to protect people of faith. (See prior posting.)  It is unclear whether the non-discrimination language included in HB 757 is sufficient to overcome the governor's objections.