Georgia Chamber of Commerce Aims to Shoot Down Religious Liberty Protections (Again!)

Photo credit: American Life League via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)
Photo credit: American Life League via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Georgia “business leaders” are consulting with their Indiana counterparts to plot strategy for defeating religious liberty protections. This story illustrates both the essential dishonesty of the religious liberty debate and the cravenness of Big Business in America.

During the 2014 legislative session in Georgia, State Sen. Josh McKoon introduced a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) substantively identical to the federal RFRA that has been on the books for 20 years. The Georgia RFRA passed the Senate but hit turbulence in the House, where the legislation was considered during the national uproar over similar, but in some important points different, legislation in Indiana. To no one’s surprise, the Georgia Republican leadership turned tail and fled the controversy, and the bill had to be tabled to await the 2016 session.

As reported by the AJC, the Georgia and Metro Atlanta Chambers of Commerce are gearing up to defeat this protection of religious liberty. Last session, the Chamber (speaking collectively) was distracted by its successful efforts to ram through a massive tax increase, but this session the Chamber will probably re-focus on defeating RFRA. Thus the consultations with the Indiana Chamber to see how they did it.

Which brings us to the dishonesty of the debate. The Left and the media (but we repeat ourselves) have established a narrative that is, as Sen. McKoon puts it, “uninterrupted by the facts.” This narrative insists that the purpose of RFRA is to mistreat gay people, ignoring that the federal RFRA, and the dozens of other state RFRAs, have never been so used in two decades. That the legislation merely requires the government to prove a compelling interest for any substantial burden on a citizen’s religious liberty — which the government may or may not be able to prove — is never mentioned.

The narrative continues that the problem can be easily solved by adding “nondiscrimination” language to the bill, as was purportedly done in Arkansas last year. But in fact, that was not done in Arkansas last year — the bill that passed there was essentially identical to the federal RFRA (which contains no nondiscrimination language). The AJC political writer was given the text of the Arkansas bill but still reported that “[Arkansas] lawmakers added anti-discriminatory language that largely defused an explosive situation.” Whether this constitutes willful ignorance or an intentional attempt to mislead is an open question. But in any event, this dishonest narrative is endemic throughout the national media.

The Chamber itself contributes to the mendacity. Sen. McKoon researched the claims of dire economic harm and discovered that, far from paying the price for protecting religious liberty, states that have RFRAs are doing quite well (two such states, Florida and Louisiana, have reported record-breaking tourism in recent years). He also determined that poll questions supposedly showing opposition to state RFRAs were phrased in a way to elicit the desired response. And the Chamber’s claim of “800 million ‘negative Twitter impressions’” over Indiana’s RFRA is not only manifestly preposterous, indicating “facts” created out of whole cloth, but also raises the issue of whether constitutional protections are now to be granted or withheld based on numbers of re-tweets.

The Chamber’s behavior in the religious liberty debate has confirmed beyond question that the organization no longer represents American business as a whole. Rather than encouraging a political and regulatory atmosphere that promotes free enterprise, the Chamber has devolved into a crony-capitalist outfit that is dominated by, and promotes the special interests of, large multi-national corporations that are grossly out of step with ordinary Americans and the businesses they operate and support on Main Street. The Chamber is interested in one thing — the economic flourishing of its largest members — and if that is enhanced by Big Government policies that benefit those mega-corporations but disadvantage less powerful businesses and obliterate American ideals, so be it.

Unfortunately, the Chamber exercises disproportionate influence in the Republican Party both in Georgia and on the national level. It will be interesting to see which Georgia Republican officials come down on the side of the Chamber, and which align themselves with the citizens of Georgia. And the same dynamic will be in play on the national stage in the presidential campaign. A candidate’s refusal to stand up to the Chamber suggests a lack of commitment to America’s founding principles. Voters should watch carefully.

Jane Robbins is an attorney and a senior fellow with the American Principles Project.