Politics

Evan Horowitz | Quick Study

Do religious freedom laws stand a chance?

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal vetoed a religious freedom bill Monday.
David Goldman/AP
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal vetoed a religious freedom bill Monday.

Under intense pressure from the business community and LGBT advocates, Georgia’s governor vetoed a religious freedom bill Monday that would have strengthened people’s right to practice their religion in the face of government restrictions.

Opponents of the bill included a veritable “who’s who” of big businesses — Coca-Cola, Apple, Disney, and the NFL — threatening a boycott. Their reason? They feared the measure would give religious organizations license to discriminate against members of the LGBT community.

With same-sex marriage now legal nationwide, religious freedom bills like this one have become a major battleground in the conflict over LGBT rights — but not the only one.

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Just last week, North Carolina passed a law preventing cities like Charlotte and Raleigh from enacting antidiscrimination measures or providing transgender bathroom accomodations. That too has set off a massive backlash, only a beat too late. Unlike in Georgia, where the governor took his time before deciding to veto his state’s religious freedom bill, Republicans in North Carolina coordinated to ensure swift, quiet passage of their bill, before opponents could mass.

What’s a religious freedom law?

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Religious freedom laws, also called Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, or RFRA, are designed to ensure that people aren’t forced to betray their religious convictions, unless absolutely necessary.

In 2008, for instance, a Native American boy in Texas was told he’d have to cut his hair to enter kindergarten. When his parents objected, noting that long hair is part of their religious tradition, they won their case thanks to a religious freedom law.

Why has Georgia’s law generated so much pushback?

Whereas some religious freedom laws are clear that belief can’t become a pretext for discrimation, Georgia’s provisions are less explicit, leaving open the possibility that these protections for religious freedom might trump local anti-discrimination laws.

In a number of high-profile cases, small businesses have invoked religious freedom bills to justify their refusal to serve gay couples — including one infamous instance where a bakery refused to provide a cake for a same-sex wedding.

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Courts have consistently rejected these kinds of claims, ruling that religious sentiments can’t justify outright discrimination. But again the Georgia measure is slightly different and there’s at least some chance state courts could side, instead, with businesses that refuse to serve LGBT people.

At the Supreme Court, too, winds have been shifting. In a landmark ruling in 2014, the justices upheld the special right of a religious-minded business to refuse to provide birth control to its employees, relying in part on a federal religious freedom law. That itself is a sign that the scope of religious freedom acts may be expanding.

Is there a bigger issue?

One of the ironies of this fight is that even if you assume opponents are right, and the goal of Georgia lawmakers is to let religious groups or devout businesses discriminate against members of the LGBT community, this religious freedom bill is utterly unnecessary in much of the state.

Under current state law, it’s perfectly legal for businesses to turn away customers who are LGBT or even to fire LGBT workers — for religious reasons or for no reason whatsoever. That’s not just Georgia, it’s true across the bulk of the United States.

A key exception is big cities like Atlanta, many of which have their own antidiscriminations ordinances. Even if this bill wouldn’t have had a big impact in most of the state, it could have changed things in Atlanta. In fact, you can think of the twin conflicts in Georgia and North Carolina as pitting conservative state legislators aginst more liberal city governments in a battle over who sets the rules for religious freedom and LGBT rights.

What’s next?

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These kinds of fights are sure to continue, in cities and states across the country. The ACLU has already filed suit against North Carolina, and pressure is building for a definitive case that could make LGBT discrimination as universally illegal as discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin.


Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz