In Georgia, RFRA Debate Continues

In Georgia, RFRA Debate Continues

By Baker Owens –

The RFRA debate is now starting to turn into a debate over debating with Speaker David Ralston. On Tuesday, Ralston told 11Alive reporter Doug Richards he is content letting the Republican Congress, with a Republican president, try their hand at fixing “whatever defect might be in the current Federal law.” Asked whether there is fatigue over the debate, Ralston responded “I don’t know that I would call it fatigue but we’ve debated the bill for three sessions.”

One of the leads on the Religious Freedom issue, Senator Josh McKoon, says he intends “to prosecute the case for this vigorously in this legislative session.” If nothing does get done however, he hopes that candidates for governor will be asked what their position is on the issue. A large basis of McKoon’s position is that the Federal RFRA does not necessarily extend to claims against state and local government, per the City of Boerne decision in 1997.

That case, officially City of Boerne v. Flores, began as a building permit application by the Catholic Archbishop of San Antonio, Patrick Flores, to enlarge the 1923 mission-style St. Peter’s Church in Boerne, Texas. The building was located in a historic district and local zoning authorities denied the permit, citing its historic status and location. The Archbishop filed suit under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, the original RFRA. The case wound its way through the courts, with Boerne winning on the District level, Flores winning at the Circuit level and eventually landing in front of the Supreme Court.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court struck down certain provisions of the Federal RFRA bill as unconstitutionally exceeding the powers granted to Congress under Section Five of the Fourteenth Amendment. McKoon’s reading of this ruling, along with the fact that 31 other states have their own RFRA laws, suggests that, in Georgia, people who feel their constitutional rights have been violated have a much lower level of protection in court.

The case that started the entire RFRA battle, Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith, is another one that McKoon cites regularly as precedent for requiring a RFRA law. In that case, two members of a Native American Church were fired from their work as counselors at a private drug rehab clinic because they had ingested peyote. Their claim came after they were denied unemployment because the reason for their dismissal was deemed “misconduct.” Ultimately, the Supreme Court held that the state could deny benefits because although states have the power to accommodate otherwise illegal acts performed in religious ceremony, they are not required to do so. Thus began the RFRA adventure.

In October, McKoon sat down for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board to talk about RFRA. He noted that for years, the General Assembly was passing bills that dealt with aspects of religious freedom concerns. “For me, the straw that broke the camel’s back was when we had to move a bill through the legislature so that our public school teachers could feel safe in their jobs to say ‘Merry Christmas’. I frankly thought that was ridiculous.”

Don’t expect the issue to go away anytime soon.

Click here to see McKoon’s sit-down with the Georgia Baptist Mission Board: