The smell of politics is in the air. Readers of The Telegraph were recently treated to a spirited debate about a bill winding its way through the state Legislature this year called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA.)
The bill, which is almost certain to be passed and signed into law, would explicitly guarantee citizens of Georgia protection from laws that violate their right to practice their religion absent a “compelling governmental interest” that justifies said law’s enforcement. Macon District Attorney K. David Cooke Jr. opened the debate with a column in which he argued the law would open a loophole for people to defend criminal behavior such as child abuse using religion as a shield. Soon after that editorial appeared, Macon’s own nationally known conservative firebrand Erick Erickson shot back with his own column defending the proposed law. He asserted that Cooke’s concerns were overblown and that similar laws have been passed by the federal government and in a number of states without a resulting flood of hard-to-prosecute child abuse cases.
I decided to look up the bill myself and draw my own conclusions, and I didn’t have to read too far into it before I saw the reasons for Cooke’s concerns. Here are a few of the highlights from the bill: “Laws neutral toward religion have the same potential to burden religious exercise as laws purposely intended to interfere with religious exercise.” “Governments should not substantially burden religious exercise without having a compelling justification.” “A person whose religious exercise has been burdened in violation of this chapter may assert that claim or defense in a judicial proceeding and obtain appropriate relief against government.”
It seems to me this bill could open up a hole in the law that people will try to drive a Mack truck through. It is basically stating that anyone may legally challenge any law whatsoever (even those that have nothing to do with religion specifically) if they can come up with an argument that the law interferes with the practice of their religion. And when they do mount such a challenge, it would be up to the state to defend the law and prove they have a “compelling justification” for enforcing said law.
It’s a completely subjective standard and it’s hard to believe that it won’t result in expensive, frivolous legal actions from people trying to wriggle out of the consequences for breaking the law by creatively arguing the laws they broke violated their religious freedom. This bill sounds more like a campaign speech than something that should be made into a law, and it seems to betray an uncertainty within our state Legislature that they can make laws that don’t oppress people unnecessarily.
The government flat out shouldn’t pass laws that violate people’s religious beliefs in the first place unless it has a compelling interest to do so. But that is a standard they should uphold whenever they make laws. It’s not something they should lard up the legal process with after the fact.
But politics these days is mostly an exercise in public relations. Legislators spend most of their time working on their image and playing to their base. That’s why nonsense like the RFRA even gets considered. But don’t worry, your state Legislature doesn’t spend all of its time on fluff like this. They are also busy tackling serious red meat issues, such as finding the billions of dollars in new revenue needed to fix our crumbling roads and bridges.
The Republican-dominated Legislature has creatively hatched a plot to generate that needed revenue without violating their no-new-taxes pledge. They plan to finance road improvements by changing the law so that the state will collect all the money generated by gasoline taxes (revenue that is currently shared between state and local government agencies) thus shifting the burden of raising taxes from the state to local governments. To steal a line from Erickson -- “Go out to your nearest pasture, find the nearest bull, and smell the steaming pile beside him.” That smell is what politics in both Washington D.C. and Atlanta, produces these days.
Bill Ferguson is a resident of Warner Robins. Readers can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.