I read with interest Dyana Bagby’s characteristically well-reported article on the Dunwoody non-discrimination ordinance (“Dunwoody set to quietly approve LGBTQ anti-bias ordinance,” June 1.) My only quibble is with her use of scare quotes to characterize Georgia’s religious freedom bill, which is a pretty standard-issue piece of legislation that certainly doesn’t license the kind of discrimination its opponents allege. It simply tracks the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) legislation, which was passed overwhelmingly and signed into law by Bill Clinton. That law, which operates only at the federal level, gives those who can show that a regulation burdens their religious practices a day in court, and subjects the regulation to “strict scrutiny,” which means that the law has to serve a compelling state interest (which non-discrimination is) and be the least restrictive means to achieve that interest. That’s pretty far from the license to discriminate that its opponents claim.
I appreciate that the Dunwoody ordinance offers some religious liberty protections, and certainly favor the general goal of non-discrimination. Where Georgia’s RFRA would kick in, if it existed, would be in hard cases like that of Jack Phillips (the proprietor of Masterpiece Cakeshop) and Barronelle Stutzman (the florist in Washington state), where artists who don’t generally discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation are asked to put their art to use to celebrate something that they can’t conscientiously celebrate. I can’t imagine that anyone seeking wedding services in Dunwoody would have a hard time finding a baker or florist without having to force someone to celebrate something that he or she didn’t believe in. A judge who heard such a case might not agree with me or with the conscientious objectors, but it seems to me that we could be generous in at least offering them their day in court.
One last point: RFRAs at the state and federal level are most frequently invoked by religious minorities when state law doesn’t accommodate them. Imagine, for example, what an inmate on death row could do with a state-level RFRA if state prison authorities refused to permit him or her access to a religious leader of his or her choice.
Dunwoody is doing the right thing by enacting a city non-discrimination ordinance. But those who are doing so to send a message about their (misplaced) fears about statewide religious liberty legislation should take a closer look at what that legislation really accomplishes, rather than simply heeding the mischaracterizations of its opponents.
Joseph M. Knippenberg
Professor of Politics
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