Lessons from the Georgia Religious Liberty Fight

Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta (photo credit: Connor.carey via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta (photo credit: Connor.carey via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Last session, the Georgia House refused to pass a state RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act), despite intense pressure from the base, after Coca-Cola and other iconic corporations weighed in against the bill—pitting, in an intense new way, the corporate wing of the GOP against the voter base.  Corporations wanted “anti-discrimination” language attached that would gut the possibility the RFRA would protect the little florists, bakers, print makers, and wedding photographers now being run over and put out of business if they won’t participate in serving gay wedding.

The fight, a window into the soul of the GOP,  spilled over into the Georgia GOP convention, when all 11 Congressional delegations among others voted to support the original language.

However, the bill is still not law, and Gov. Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston both side with the let the little guys be punished out of business in the name of avoiding gay equality wrath.

What are the lessons to be learned from the Georgia fight?

  1. This is an issue that can tear apart the Republican Party.  Corporations had best think a bit about how much they like working in Democrat-controlled territory before jumping on board this train.
  2. State RFRAs are bad vehicles for this fight, because they are broad and vague and their outcome is uncertain. It is very unlikely that a state RFRA will protect anyone from any gay equality wrath, precisely because courts uniformly view equality as a compelling interest, and because there is no way to make sure everyone gets treated equally while permitting some people to refuse to serve gay weddings.
  3. A better vehicle is some version of a Marriage and Religious Freedom Act (MARFA), which prevents governments from punishing individuals and small businesses for refusing to participate in a wedding they do not approve of. If you ask me, I would carve out an exception for race and leave it at that. The protection is narrow, but tight and clear; they can be crafted to be viewpoint neutral (meaning you can refuse Maggie’s wedding if you object to it, too).  And they can be narrowed to apply to small businesses, so that the big corporations have no excuse to getting involved unless they want to be mean to the little guy.
  4. Ted Cruz was a rock star, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, delivering two crowd-enthusing speeches, and when he went behind closed doors to speak to the press, delegates gathered behind him chanting, “We want Cruz! We want Cruz!” There is an opportunity here for presidential candidates to make a difference pushing for the federal Marriage and Religious Freedom Act. When the Justice Department is at the Supreme Court saying religious schools and charities could lose their tax-exempt status if they don’t support “marriage equality,” it’s time to get serious about carving out protections.
  5. Christian conservatives need to raise hard money and spend it defeating Hillary Clinton in one or two swing states by showing this anti-religious extremism is going to cost Democrats votes not only among white working class voters but also among Hispanic and black evangelicals..  I know I am repeating myself, but I am going to say it a lot.  Because Christian conservatives don’t usually do this. Time to get serious about being in politics. Past time.

Maggie Gallagher is a senior fellow at American Principles in Action.