Debate over “religious liberty” legislation promises to be harsh in this year’s General Assembly, with social conservatives pushing to combat what they see as religious persecution and opponents fighting what they see as an effort to legalize discrimination against gay Americans.
I have two major problems with the legislation:
1.) Claims that Christians are being persecuted in this overwhelmingly Christian country — especially here in Georgia, a state that is more Christian that most — ought to be taken skeptically. When the majority sect cries persecution, it is generally not persecution at all but frustration that its majority status does not translate into the deference that they believe they deserve. There is a very important difference between the two, because that deference to the religious majority comes at the expense of the minority, which undercuts rather than protects religious liberty.
2.) I’d be a lot more comfortable with the bill if I understood more precisely what its supporters hope to accomplish. They deny they are seeking a religion-based exemption to justify anti-gay discrimination, and instead claim it is needed to address unrelated infringements on religious freedom. But in each of the cases that they cite, existing law appears to have resolved the issue appropriately.
Some groups are now seizing upon the case of Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran to demonstrate why the legislation is needed. Cochran was placed on unpaid leave after a self-published Christian book came to light in which he equates homosexuality to bestiality and child sexual abuse, and after allegations that he had given copies of his book to subordinates.
“It is time for believers to stand up for their religious beliefs, biblical principles and fellow Christians who are punished or marginalized for their faith,” Dr. J. Robert White, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Convention, said in demanding that Cochran be reinstated and given back pay and an apology.
However, using Cochran’s case to demonstrate why the legislation is needed confirms rather than refutes the claim that it is intended to create legal space in which to discriminate against gay Georgians. And if we rearrange the facts a bit without altering the principles at stake, we can more clearly see the underlying problems in the bill.
If Cochran had instead written a pro-gay, anti-Christian diatribe and shared it with his employees, would practicing, devout conservative Christians in his department feel confident that they would not be discriminated against? My sense is that they would worry -- correctly -- that he had created a hostile work environment. If he were an adherent of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, and if he distributed Black Muslim pamphlets to the men and women who work for him, would the Georgia Baptist Convention defend that action under the banner of religious liberty?
Under such circumstances, they would be more likely to see what they apparently cannot see under the current circumstances. When you are placed in a position of secular authority over others — Cochran has more than 1,000 employees under his command — your expression of religious faith in the workplace can be experienced as an imposition on the beliefs of others. And I don’t believe that Georgia law should be rewritten to encourage such actions.