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Monday, February 24, 2014

OPINION: Could Jim Crow return to Georgia?

At 4 p.m. today, state lawmakers will discuss a piece of legislation, officially named "The Preservation of Religious Freedom Act," that critics say could would allow businesses to broadly discriminate against employees. CL contributor Andrew Alexander writes about why he believes the law would harm Georgia.

"We don't serve your kind in here," is a phrase one hopes to hear only in movies about Georgia's shameful history. But Georgians could start to hear the phrase a lot more if House Bill 1023 and Senate Bill 377 become law.

Georgia lawmakers are seemingly crafting the bills, which have been prepared strategically to avoid public debate and are primed for easy passage and will likely be signed into law by Governor Nathan Deal, to allow businesses and individuals to discriminate against gay people on religious grounds. That's bad enough, but the bills are so broadly worded (gay people are not mentioned) that anyone could defend any act of discrimination by saying it is religiously motivated. These bills would allow individuals and businesses to cite religion as a defense in any private discrimination lawsuit. Business owners could claim they refuse to serve unwed mothers due to religious beliefs. A Christian doctor could claim it would violate his religious convictions to give medical assistance to a Jew. A realtor could refuse to show homes in desirable neighborhoods to certain types of clientele by claiming it stemmed from his religious convictions. And, yes, in a discrimination lawsuit, white business owners could claim that their refusal to provide service to blacks emerged from sincerely held religious beliefs.

Anyone with a sense of history knows that many of the original arguments in favor of Jim Crow laws were, in fact, religious. Being forced to desegregate was, opponents claimed, a violation of their religious beliefs. As religious leader Jerry Falwell in speaking of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling said in 1958: "If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God's word and had desired to do the Lord's will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line."

And as Virginia trial judge Leon M. Bazile wrote in his 1959 decision enforcing that state's ban on marriage between blacks and whites in the case of Mildred and Richard Loving: "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents ... The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."

Many segregationists sincerely believed that discrimination was mandated by their religion. Sadly, there are religious people who still hold these beliefs, and others would gladly adopt them if doing so would allow them to discriminate. These old arguments will undoubtedly return to our public discourse with renewed vigor once HB 1023 and SB 377 pass. The new bills' broad language provides cover to those seeking to discriminate, creating a potential legal out that was unavailable to the original segregationists.

The bill says that, in spite of whatever other non-discrimination laws may exist, if someone claims a religious exemption in a discrimination suit, said laws will not apply. HB 1023 and SB 377 would allow nearly any claim of religious burden to overturn or allow exemptions to almost any current law: It's a potential "get out of jail free" card for those who want to discriminate, with its long-term effects entirely unknown. Under the proposed laws, individuals and private organizations could claim an imposition on their religious freedoms in order to make discriminatory decisions otherwise prohibited by current law. The bills would even allow employers to discriminate against potential employees based on current protected legal statuses - like race, sex, age, pregnancy, nationality and even religion under the guise of protecting the employer's religious freedom.

Georgia went through this debate many years ago, and the answer that was arrived at during the Civil Rights Movement was the best one. "Open to the public" means "open to the public." Equal treatment means equal treatment. Business owners who operate public accommodations do not get to discriminate among their clientele for religious or any other reasons. If you want to own a business that serves the Georgia public, you must serve the entire Georgia public. Period.

When HB 1023 and SB 377 pass, it will be a disaster for the state. Businesses that are "Straights Only," "Whites Only," and "No Jews Allowed" - things that once seemed like they could have only existed in the past - could become the norm in Georgia once again as businesses claim religious exemptions from civil rights laws and discrimination suits, testing the seemingly limitless scope of the new bills. And ironically it will all happen as our capital city prepares to unveil its new National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

People of good sense everywhere must unite in urging Georgia lawmakers to turn their attention back to our state's floundering economy and struggling school systems. Freedom of religion is already broadly and strongly protected by the First Amendment. Religious freedom was never meant to include the freedom to discriminate. These bills are a solution in search of a non-existent problem. Our representatives should not pursue the foolishness of this harmful, unnecessary, and discriminatory legislation.

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