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YOUR SAY: First Amendment defense act endangers domestic violence victims

"Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me."

-- Matthew 25:45 (NIV)

It takes great courage for victims of domestic violence to choose to leave their abuser. When they do leave, often with children in tow, they need a safe place to go, out of reach of their abuser, where they can get the support they need to not return.

But imagine if these women were immediately turned away and told to go back home or somewhere else. And imagine if the people charged with providing shelter for these women were given additional protections to allow them to turn victims away.

Unfortunately, if state Sen. Greg Kirk's "First Amendment Defense Act" becomes law in Georgia, that's exactly what could happen, and we have to stop it. Domestic violence victims need to know that the door to safe shelter will be open to them, regardless of who they are or what they believe.

This is why one of my favorite charities is Crisis Line & Safe House. Its mission is to provide community crisis intervention as well as safe shelter, comprehensive support and recovery services for all victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. The charity also educates the community about the cycle of violence and its prevention.

In short, they help women who have been abused. And they take all comers. It doesn't matter who beat a woman -- they will take her in. If an abuse victim is pregnant, it doesn't matter to them if the father is the victim's husband, boyfriend or even an abusive father or brother -- Crisis Line & Safe House will take them in. They know we get to pick a lot of things in this world, but picking our abuser isn't one of them.

Crisis Line & Safe House is a nonprofit. Their staff is comprised of individuals of many faiths, but they do not espouse any particular religious doctrine. But they look after some of our most vulnerable neighbors in a way that is worthy of scripture. I would even say that their work is God's work.

Frankly, statewide, the need for these critical services far exceeds available financial resources. Crisis Line & Safe House accepts private donations, but they also rely on state and federal taxpayer funded grants -- grants that currently require that shelters not discriminate.

Georgia's newest and most dangerous so-called religious "freedom" bill, the "First Amendment Defense Act," would do things a different way. This proposed law would put groups like the Crisis Line & Safe House, who take in everyone who knocks on their door, in competition for tax dollars with religious groups that pick and choose who they will help.

There are battered women's shelters that refuse to accept victims from the LGBT community. If a woman is a victim of physical abuse from her same-sex partner or spouse, these shelters will not help that woman. And if the assault victim is pregnant, they will not help her if she is seeking an abortion, even if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. And if they do provide medical services for a victim, it will not be at a facility that puts her health and welfare first, even if she has a problematic pregnancy that could endanger her life or health.

That's why Georgia's "First Amendment Defense Act" isn't just wrong -- it's dangerous. It seeks to allow these groups to accept taxpayer money from everyone, but provide services only to those who abide by their particular faith and doctrine. Even further, it would prohibit governments from withholding grants to faith-based groups based upon their beliefs and practices.

These faith-based shelters have every right to operate as they see fit. And this is not meant to denigrate or disparage the fine work that many of these faith-based facilities provide. They have helped countless women improve their lives and move from a path of victimhood to recovery. But the moment they accept taxpayer money from everyone, they have to help everyone. It's only fair.

The irony in all this is that, by my reading, the secular institutions like Crisis Line & Safe House may be truer to the gospel than many faith-based institutions, because they help everyone who walks in the door, regardless of who they are. Even, and, especially, the least of these.

I suppose that we can argue about which way is more Christian. But there's no arguing about which way is more American.

David Cooke is the Bibb County District Attorney.

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