Georgia On My Mind

Can we talk about Americans’ widespread confusion over religious liberty?

Georgia lawmakers recently approved a bill that says church officials can refuse to perform gay marriages. (Evidently, supporters of the so-called “Pastor Protection Act” do know that religious leaders already have that protection under the First Amendment, but they argue that passage of the measure will “reassure them.”)

The “Pastor Protection Act” was one of at least eight other bills pending in the Georgia legislature sponsored by opponents of same-sex marriages. They included Georgia’s very own RFRA, which is headed for passage over the vocal objections of state business leaders. Georgia’s RFRA already prompted 373k, a Decatur-based telecom startup, to announce it would relocate to Nevada; yesterday, it generated an editorial about state-level RFRAs in the New York Times:

These brazen measures, going beyond the Indiana law, would create blanket protection for discrimination. That these states would consider such legislation is all the more remarkable given the damage Indiana’s image and economy suffered in the national backlash to its law.

One of the most alarming bills comes out of Georgia, where state lawmakers have cobbled together a dangerous piece of legislation that would prohibit the government from punishing anyone or anything — individuals; businesses; and nonprofit groups, including those that receive taxpayer funds — for discrimination, so long as they claim it was based on their religious views of marriage.

 We’ve seen this movie before.

Decades of foot-dragging in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education was nothing short of scandalous; resistance to the 1964 Civil Rights Act continues to this day, and now, in the.wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, states like Georgia, West Virginia and Indiana—among others—are engaging in the same sorts of behaviors that followed those previous extensions of equal rights.

In fact, what we are seeing from “religious” folks today is strikingly similar to “religious” arguments against civil rights protections for African-Americans in 1964. Then, the argument was “my religion teaches that the races are to be kept separate, so requiring my bakery or shoe store to serve black customers would deny me religious freedom.”

So what is the First Amendment right to religious freedom? How extensive is it? What does it protect?

As I tell my students, religious freedom means you have the absolute right to believe anything you want. Jesus, Zeus, the Flying Spaghetti Monster or nothing at all—it’s entirely up to you. And your church or synagogue or coven can preach about those beliefs, reject participation in events offensive to those beliefs, and even hire and fire certain employees based upon religious doctrine.

When it comes to acting on the basis of your beliefs, however, the law erects some limits. You can sincerely, deeply believe that you should sacrifice your first-born, or that prayer, not medical intervention, will cure your child’s serious disease, but you are not allowed to act on those beliefs. (You can refuse medical care for yourself, but not for your minor child.) You can believe that your God wants you to rob that bank, or use drugs, or copulate in the middle of the street, but no matter how sincere your belief, government isn’t going to go along.

Except in very rare cases, religious belief does not exempt individuals from what the courts call “laws of general application.”

Here’s the deal: when you open a business, government provides the streets and sidewalks your customers use to access that business. Police and fire departments protect it from harm. When your toilets flush, government sewers remove the excrement.  In many areas, government picks up your trash and provides public transportation for your customers and employees. In return for these and other services, government expects you to do two things: pay your taxes and obey the laws.

Including civil rights laws. Even if you live in Georgia, or Indiana.


  1. ” In return for these and other services, government expects you to do two things: pay your taxes and obey the laws. Including civil rights laws. Even if you live in Georgia, or Indiana.”


  2. Some of those who would claim to passionately support freedom don’t apparently even know what it is. If it’s not freedom for everyone it’s not freedom. In a free country imposing your religion or sexuality on others is not a freedom. In fact it’s the opposite.

  3. In a late night post yesterday Ken G lamented being harshly treated by liberals and I so agree with him, that that’s not the way that good people treat good people. There’s simply no place in liberalism for the kind of treatment that we see or have seen from those like Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, Archie Bunker, Grover Norquist, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Glenn Beck, Wayne LaPierre, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, John Boehner, and others.

    People have a right to ignore reality and it doesn’t cheapen who they are, only what they accomplish.

    Conservatives have every right to exist in America.

    We just need to use our forefather given and protected through generations democracy to exclusively empower those both informed and accepting of reality to govern.

    Live free, informed and unafraid. That’s what liberal governance delivers. Treat others with respect. Just gently nudge them from government as they are just not effective at it.

  4. Would I be correct in saying that you are allowed your beliefs and practices unless it harms another? And if the first amendment already protects these religious freedoms then would not these governments be subject to law suits for failure to desperate church and state?

  5. Reading about these so-called “religious freedoms” and “religious rights” brought to mind an observation made during the “free love” years of 1960’s and 1979’s. Wish I could remember who it was who pointed out to the hippie generation that “free love” meant you had a choice – it did not mean you HAD to have sex with everyone who passed your way.

    Do laws such as the RFRA order organized religions and all those with religious beliefs to deny rights to LGBTs? I know that law is meaningless in the broader spectrum but…as always it is written in politicalese and appears to protect only one segment of our society and that depends on which political party is in control. In Indiana it is only in effect in designated areas of the state while the remaining areas can either refuse or provide marriage rights to whomever they choose. The Constitution apparently needed clarification regarding the marital rights of LGBTs about the same time it began limiting our civil rights and putting this government on the auction block to the highest bidders. It managed to “clarify” a religious issue not mentioned in the Constitution while again ignoring separation of church and state which is deliberately stated in the 1st Amendment.

    Many organized religions have become big business; the benefits Sheila referred to which are provided by government to them do NOT require they pay taxes and now they are seeking their own set of laws to be enacted by the government. I join with the growing faction that it is long past due for churches to begin paying their fair share of taxes…I doubt that will happen any more than the 1% will ever be required to pay their fair share. I am still pissed that Mitt Romney got that $70,000 tax deduction for his wife’s dancing horse!

  6. We were’nt “one nation under God…” intil 1954. Our currency didn’t “Trust” in God until 1956. Our license plates were even later to the fold. Most of this religious claptrap has occured during my lifetime. It is a response to fear, not to logic. I frequently hear calls to put God back into our schools.

    If you are truly Christian, you know that God is in all of us and She doesn’t need the hype. She only needs us to behave well and take care of those around us, and of this earth over which we have been given dominion.

  7. If this were the only assault on the Constitution during these times, I would not be too concerned. But there are now numerous assaults coming from different constituencies, all of which are based inside of the Republican party. The evangelicals and catholics want to do away with freedom of religion, the gun nuts have reinterpreted the second amendment, the always greedy want to do away with the government responsibility to tax and to regulate commerce, and the power hungry want to redefine the duties of the president. We seem to mentally separate these various factions, when we probably need to lump them together into what Hillary once described as that “vast, right wing conspiracy”.
    This country is in deep trouble. Our Constitution is under attack. And the rank and file of the Republican Party has joined in with support for the worse collection of power hungry thugs to ever grace a primary.

  8. Peggy; I was thinking before getting back on the blog that the only true humanitarian laws can be found in the Ten Commandments…Jewish in origin. Their basic meaning can be found covertly stated in the Bill or Rights, Constitution and most Amendments. This is a confusing country we live in; supposedly founded on freedom OF religion which means no one can decide your religious beliefs which includes non-believing. Those who are demanding “one nation under God” and “in God we trust” be returned to and adhered to wherever they were or are found, are not aware those words were added within the past half century or so. They also seem to be unaware that it is against the 1st Amendment “separation of church and state”. It is confusing that some bodies of government demand the removal of religious symbols from government property but begin and/or end most official meetings or actions with prayers. I doubt that few Americans know the original raised arm salute used while saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag was changed because it mimicked the Heil Hitler salute used by the Nazis. Also unaware that the salute is NOT required but is optional by all. As the list of Amendments grows, our rights seem to diminish depending on the religious beliefs of our elected leaders. “Is a puzzlement!”

  9. Moving to Canada or Europe keeps looking better and better to me. It seems that the anti-intellectuals and crazies have taken over control of our country.

  10. I know my arguement against the various religious freedoms laws are twofold. On the one hand they usually define businesses as people, which seems a bit perverse. On the other hand if my religious beliefs are more important than your rights what happens if I believe you don’t have the right to breathe? Unfortunately we seem to be reliving the 1850s and using religious freedom as the banner of evil instead of slavery as a positive good, I honestly do not see much difference in the respective conservative sides.

  11. Sheila wrote – “In fact, what we are seeing from “religious” folks today is strikingly similar to “religious” arguments against civil rights protections for African-Americans in 1964. Then, the argument was “my religion teaches that the races are to be kept separate, so requiring my bakery or shoe store to serve black customers would deny me religious freedom.”

    When people use religion as an excuse to discriminate against others, does it possibly give them a feeling of safety? It just seems that they are hiding behind religion, rather than openly admitting to discriminating of their own free will. Of course, I realize there are many religious leaders that preach in favor of discrimination and some of their followers obey out of fear. Those who see through this form of control have been leaving organized religion because of it.

  12. There is much in religions that is good although by necessity it came to religion mostly from secular ideas about how people can live together in the most productive progressive way. Religion was and is an effective “enforcer”.

    Like most everything else religion is only a tool and it can be just as effective, depending on the user, for collective good or individual evil.

    Like is true of weapons as tools it is to some salvation and to others hell on earth. So it can never be accepted as inherent good but conditional good and it takes some knowledge and thinking to know which.

  13. Sheila, whenever you explain something like this so clearly, I wish you had wider readership. I will share this on facebook

  14. This is the usual grandstanding – some of the legislators involved are delusional enough to believe in this sort of law, and believe it will withstand a court challenge. Most, however, are pandering to their base and have no expectation of these things lasting.

    The ‘Iron Law of Institutions’ says that decision-makers in a large organization will almost invariably base their actions on keeping their job and maintaining their position in the organization, even if it causes severe irreparable harm to the organization. Principled exceptions are rare. So companies leaving Georgia, and conferences & meetings relocating elsewhere, and residents losing their jobs, is of no consequence to a legislator intent on keeping his cushy job – even if the pay isn’t great, it’s steady work & the benefits are great.

  15. I’ve always viewed it as perverse and evil for people to want permission from the government to judge people and be mean-spirited without any legal consequences while calling it “religious freedom”. “Hypocritical” just doesn’t cover it. I think these people would be surprised to hear Jesus’ sentiments about such nonsense, but instead of responding the way they should, would only say that crucifixion was too good for him. That’s only one of many topics they don’t seem to understand.

  16. To Pete and all those who are wondering about a thumbnail picture or logo/graphic appearing alongside your posts – as I thought it’s a wordpress thing, but Sheila’s son Stephen was kind enough to explain the details to me yesterday:

    When you create an account at WordPress or Gravatar (you don’t have to start a blog or website or anything, just create an account) you can upload a pic or graphic that’s cross-referenced to your email address. It uses (and creates, if you don’t already have one) a central account at that has your profile associated with your unique Email address.

    You can create different profiles with different Email addresses, and if you have a Disqus account you can also have your Disqus posts use the same pic/graphic. Personally I use my Gravatar (with a headshot pic) for more serious comments, while my loopier rants (on wonkette) use my Disqus (pic of the robot from Lost in Space).

    Hope this helps – Mr. Wallack seems to have figured this out already.

  17. Thank you Ron. Another example of how connected the earth has become. I’ve tried to live my life without secrets and I think that in the future that will be true whatever our intentions might be.

  18. Finally a post to help me explain what I’ve not been able to verbalize. This post is so helpful! Thank you, Sheila! Sharing you on FB almost DAILY!

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