I have been following the legislative peregrinations of Georgia’s religious liberty (notice that, unlike the Atlanta newspaper, I don’t use “scare quotes” to describe it) legislation with a great deal of interest and concern. There are just a few days left in this year’s session, and I’d love to see the legislature do the right thing and provide additional sensible protection to what we have for a long time called our “first freedom.” I wish I were more confident.

To get you up to speed, let me give you, dear readers, a brief recap of what has happened so far. Different versions of the proposal were filed in the House and in the Senate. The Senate version passed overwhelmingly on March 5th. It now sits before the House, where it will be the subject of a subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, March 24th. Proponents and opponents of the legislation have turned up the heat, with RedState/WSB pundit Erick Erickson becoming very vocal in favor of the bill and opponents continuing to claim—wrongly, I would argue—that it is a license to discriminate.

My biggest fear is that some legislators—especially those with the most influence—will simply choose to keep their heads down, seeking to propitiate the noisiest constituency. In this, they will follow the risk- and bad publicity-averse business community. In this connection, the latest straw in the wind is a speech delivered by House Speaker David Ralston to the Atlanta Press Club. Here’s what the Speaker had to say:

That gets the bill title of the year award in my book. And I want to say a few things about that bill today. I have said before: I am talking with and listening to people on both sides of this important issue.

And I will continue to do so. I do not take lightly the importance of protecting a person’s right to worship and express their faith. The framers of both the United States and Georgia constitutions saw this right as paramount. And that’s why we find this protection in our most basic and important and even sacred legal documents.

As with any issue of this magnitude, there’s a lot of misinformation swirling out there through the modern rumor mill that we refer to as social media. Despite what you have heard, I haven’t made my mind up. I am still seeking the right way forward, and I don’t apologize for that.

Some things in our legislative process, unfortunately, do take time to work out. Before we move forward, we have to understand what the impact of this legislation will be on the rule of law in this state. We need to know if this legislation opens the door to unintended consequences of any type, that some may try to exploit.

I take proponents of this measure at their word that discrimination toward anyone is not part of this effort. At the same time, I appreciate the concerns of those who have strong opposition to this legislation.

The good news is that Georgia is a global destination for people from all over the world who want to come visit and for businesses that want to come create jobs. And that is not going to change.

But closing the door to anyone is closing the door to all.”

A few things are worth noting here, beginning with his ironic reference to the bill’s title, which I take to mean that he’s of a mind to adopt the “scare quotes” approach taken by the AJC. Second, I’m certainly willing at the moment to take him at his word when he affirms the importance of religious liberty. Third, his concerns about unintended consequences and the rule of law are certainly appropriate, but, I think, rather easily allayed. We have more than twenty years of experience with a federal RFRA, and I don’t think that any honest observer could assert that that piece of legislation amounts to the greatest threat to the rule of law in America today. (I have other nominees for that prize, but that’s a subject for another day.) Of greatest concern is his final comment: “closing the door to anyone is closing the door to all,” offered in the context of a reference to Georgia’s global business ties. As I said earlier, there are noisy constituencies that insist—loudly and at every turn—that the bill offers a license to discriminate, that it is anti-gay, and that it will, in effect, send a signal to gays and others that Georgia is hostile to them. Under those circumstances, they will simply take their business elsewhere. That line of argument seems greatly to concern the Speaker and his allies in the business community. The easy way out is let the bill die this session, sending a signal that Georgia is still open for business. This is easy because the bill’s proponents are, generally speaking, business-friendly and not given to the kind of “bad behavior”—economic boycotts, threatening people’s jobs, and demonstrating at people’s homes—that folks on the other side have displayed. They’ll still shop at Home Depot and book their tickets on Delta.

There’s bit more to the speech that gives me a little hope and more than a little concern:

In this and other passionate debates, however, there always seems to be a few for whom honest, reasonable, and civil discussion is an alien concept that they are simply not acquainted with. These pundits-for-hire and self-professed thought leaders are not looking to protect anything, or anyone. They seek profit, relevance, and attention by preying on people’s worst fears through loud volume, lies and distortions.

I have no interest in rushing to act on this or any other issue merely to coddle over-inflated egos or help grow someone’s bank account.

Here’s what I propose we do: Let’s all take a deep breath and look at this thing in a reasonable way – and we’ll find the right way that really does what both sides hope to accomplish. Because I believe that at the end of the day, Georgians don’t have time for the politics of personal destruction. They don’t expect us to waste the limited time we have here playing these kinds of games.

As an American, and Georgian, and born-again Christian, I value inclusive discussion. I believe the Old Testament prophet got it right when he said, in the Book of Isiah, ‘Come, let us reason together.’

I don’t expect or demand that the members of the House agree on everything. What I do ask, and what we have done, is debate the issues constructively…

The AJC reporter believes that the Speaker’s remarks are largely directed at Erick Erickson, who (as I noted earlier) has turned up the volume in favor of the bill. Erickson may well have hit a nerve, but he’s hardly the only participant in the debate who may have crossed a line or two in promoting a favored position. I wish that the commentary here were more even-handedly directed at transgressors on both sides, rather than focusing much of the ire against a perhaps overzealous supporter of the legislation. Then I’d be more confident in the Speaker’s willingness to “reason together.”

I’ll close by noting an argument proffered by AJC columnist Kyle Wingfield: if the bill is killed this year, it will surely come back next year, after a Supreme Court decision that will likely create a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, with even more heat and less light surrounding it. Genuine friends of religious liberty don’t want it tied too intimately to the hot button social issue of the day. If David Ralston is a genuine friend of religious liberty, he could do much worse than take Wingfield’s advice. Bring it to a vote this year, for next year the acrimony and vitriol will only be worse.

Update: After yesterday’s hearing, some are speculating that the House will approve an alternative to the Senate version that narrowly tailors protections to faith-based non-profits, specifically excluding for-profit businesses like Hobby Lobby, whose owners have religious scruples about contraceptives or abortifacients, for example. I would rather see a robust protection of religious liberty, even in the marketplace. And I would prefer, even more, that people display enough respect for the religious scruples of their fellow citizens that they wouldn’t demand that a business owner act against his or her conscience. But I, personally, would prefer some legislative protection to none at all. I remain persuaded by Kyle Wingfield’s argument that, in the next legialtive session, after a likely Supreme Court decision, getting even a narrow religious liberty bill will be exceedingly difficult. And I am acutely aware how hard it is to persuade the Georgia legislature—even when it’s controlled by people who identify themselves as conservatives—to pass sensible legislation that takes reasonable account of the role of religion in our culture and civilization.

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