LGBT and progressive clergy decried the glut of “religious freedom” bills under consideration at the Georgia Capitol, speaking out against them during a press conference on Wednesday.
“This is about some of the most powerful politicians in our state trying to use their own faith to put other people down so that they can win votes,” Rabbi Joshua Heller of B’nai Torah said.
The press conference came after the Senate passed a hybrid bill on Friday that combines one largely innocuous bill – Rep. Kevin Tanner's Pastor Protection Act – and combined it with a sweeping anti-gay measure – Sen. Greg Kirk's First Amendment Defense Act – to hatch a substitute House Bill 757 that would sanction LGBT discrimination by faith-based organizations and undercut non-discrimination protections in place in companies and cities across the state.
Opponents of the bill have also expressed concern that access to social services for queer people – like adoption agencies, medical clinics, or domestic violence shelters – might be adversely impacted by the legislation, which has drawn considerable support from conservative religious groups and leaders.
“Everybody just because they’re religious doesn’t mean that they’re right, myself included,” said Rev. Timothy McDonald of First Iconium Baptist Church. “Never assume just because someone is a person of faith, that because of faith they do the right thing. History has shown us otherwise.”
McDonald said the “religious freedom” legislation isn't needed.
“People of faith did not ask for it. We did not march for it. We did not write for it. We did not send in emails for it. We didn’t have anything to do with it,” he said.
Rev. Debbie Shew, an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Atlanta, said clergy already enjoy protections.
“The First Amendment already protects me. The state Constitution of Georgia already protects me. And so from my perspective, this is completely unnecessary,” Shew said.
The faith leaders also took aim at Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who over the weekend celebrated fighting “back against radical Atheist groups in Georgia.”
“Victory! Together, we successfully fought back against radical Atheist groups in Georgia. Yesterday, the Senate passed Senate Bill 309 that will protect religious liberties of all of our public school student athletes. This sends a clear message that Georgia is still God’s country.”
The post came after the Senate approved Kirk's legislation at the end of hours of debate.
“You know what? Some have declared this to be a victory over atheists,” Rabbi Joshua Heller of B’nai Torah said. “But this is not a win for anyone. This is no longer a discussion about what high school athletes can wear on their sleeves, this is about people trying to elbow others out of the way.”
Cagle's office later clarified that his Facebook post referred to Senate Bill 309, which protects religious expression by student athletes and passed on Feb. 18. But Cagle has made it clear, thanks to his war on gay marriage, that the sentiments he shared in the Facebook post apply to much of the “religious freedom” legislation floating around the State Capitol.
The press conference on Wednesday included at least four LGBT faith leaders – Rabbi Joshua Lesser of Congregation Bet Haverim, Rev. Paul Turner of Gentle Spirit Christian Church, Rev. Josh Noblitt of Saint Mark United Methodist Church and Rev. Duncan Teague.
LGBT and progressive faith leaders have taken an increasingly public role in opposing the “religious freedom” legislation. They took to the steps of the State Capitol on Feb. 17 to call the legislation “a Trojan horse.” Clergy also took part in a rally against the legislation outside the Capitol on Feb. 9.
On Feb. 2, they countered a call from Southern Baptists to pass the legislation with their own denunciation of it.