A diverse group of pastors and a progressive state senator blasted a legislative proposal to pass a "religious freedom" bill in Georgia as a polarizing attempt to provide cover for anti-gay discrimination.

"This bill could have a broad range of harmful consequences, from discrimination against gays and lesbians in Georgia to individuals claiming religious rights to ignore the laws that we already have on the books," said Rabbi Peter Berg, senior rabbi at the Temple.

Berg was joined during a Tuesday morning press conference at the State Capitol by Rev. James Lamkin of Northside Drive Baptist Church, Rev. William Flippin, Jr., pastor at Emmanuel Lutheran Church, and Rev. David Lewicki, co-pastor at North Decatur Presbyterian Church. The religious leaders expressed opposition to House Bill 29, a proposal from state Rep. Sam Teasley. The Marietta Republican wants to protect religious expression from what he's called government intrusion.

State Sen. Nan Orrock, a staunch LGBT ally, called the bill "unnecessary, unneeded and polarizing."

"It doesn't reflect an agenda that serves Georgia," Orrock said. "It can become just a cover for anti-gay discrimination and discrimination against whomever one wishes to discriminate against."

The press conference by opponents came as supporters of the legislation plan to rally at the State Capitol on Tuesday with their new poster child for the effort – ousted Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran. Also Tuesday, the legislation gained "tacit" approval from Gov. Nathan Deal, who is no stranger to supporting anti-gay efforts. But business leaders have opposed the legislation and even House Speaker David Ralston, a conservative Republican, has expressed doubts about the need for the measure. 

Last year, two proposals – one from Teasley and a similar proposal from state Sen. Josh McKoon – flopped late in the legislative session. The House measure died after a contentious hearing that included an emotional plea from state Rep. Simone Bell, one of three openly gay lawmakers at the Gold Dome. LGBT activists, who dub the legislation "license to discriminate" bills, say the measures would allow anti-gay discrimination and undermine LGBT protections put in place in municipalities across the state.

The pastors said some 60 faith leaders in Georgia signed their letter opposing Teasley's new bill. (Read the letter below)

Rev. David Lewicki, North Decatur Presbyterian Church

 

"We stand here today to oppose what has come to be called the Religious Freedom Restoration Bill. There is a letter that has been circulating among clergy in Atlanta and the state of Georgia. There are now over 60 faith leaders who have signed onto this letter and we stand together in opposition of this bill."

 

Rabbi Peter Berg, the Temple

 

"I am opposed to House Bill 29 precisely because religious freedom is for me as a rabbi is the most important freedom guaranteed by our Constitution. And religious freedom is already protected by the Constitution of the United State of America and the Constitution of the state of Georgia and the protections have stood the test of time."

"If enacted, this bill would give the right to harm others and not only to do so, but to do so in the name of religion. I am here today because I believe this bill is a divisive measure and divisiveness is not what Georgia needs right now."

"This bill could have a broad range of harmful consequences, from discrimination against gays and lesbians in Georgia to individuals claiming religious rights to ignore the laws that we already have on the books. If enacted, one could actually claim exemption from a child labor law investigation, one could actually deny counseling to an individual who is gay or lesbian. That is not religious freedom. It is plain and simple, discrimination."

 

Rev. William Flippin, Jr., Emmanuel Lutheran Church

 

"We are here united for a common purpose. Religious freedom is a deeply resonate American principle. In fact, it is one of the most fundamental rights as Americans. From the first Puritans who arrived in Massachusetts because of religious persecution, we are protected in the Constitution on religious freedom and expression. We all know that freedom is a great responsibility – to protect, to uplift, to enlighten. But also, it is the responsibility of freedom that can also harm others. That's why I stand today opposing House Bill 29."

"The Georgia discriminatory Religious Freedom Restoration Act infringes and violates the core of human ethics in our relationship with our neighbor."

 

Rev. James Lamkin, Northside Baptist Church

 

"I am for religious freedom, and I am for religious responsibility. Because of both of these, I must say that I am not for this legislation."

"Though this Georgia legislation may come with good intention, I think it could make this issue of religious freedom and responsibility more complicate and have unintended consequences."

"Though modeled after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, this is not 1993. I helped with RFRA in 1993; I lived in the D.C. area. It emerged out of a board coalition of faith groups and it emerged out of a certain context. But times have changed and polarization has set in. These are anxious times that require patient, religious responsibility that seeks to understand and work for the common good of all people."

 

State Sen. Nan Orrock

 

"[I want to] voice my concern that we not see unnecessary, unneeded, polarizing legislation which does nothing to advance the welfare of Georgians, the economy of our state, meeting the needs that have been expressed and the challenges we face this session. Do not let House Bill 29 become a chip to garner some votes to pass important, significant legislation. That is my caution to my colleagues and to the leadership under the Gold Dome. We must be very clear that legislation like this is divisive."

Georgia Faith Leaders Oppose 'Religious Freedom' Bill by Matt Hennie