By Michael Jacobs
Dueling press conferences of religious leaders at the state Capitol took opposite stands on religious liberty legislation, but the Jewish presence Jan. 28 came down strictly in opposition to the proposals.
Rabbis Fred Greene of Temple Beth Tikvah and Josh Lesser of Congregation Bet Haverim stood prominently among clergy of various denominations at an event organized by Faith in Public Life to criticize H.B. 29, the Preventing Government Overreach on Religious Expression Act, introduced by Rep. Sam Teasley (R-Marietta), and any similar religious liberty legislation.
Critics of the legislation say it is broad enough to provide a defense for otherwise criminal acts, such as the use of illegal drugs and domestic abuse, and to shield discrimination against the gay community and others whose actions might offend some religious beliefs.
Supporters say the legislation would prevent free expression from being punished, as in the case of fired Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran, and would protect small-business people from penalties for putting their religious beliefs above potential customers.
“For the Jewish community, we know how important it is to protect religious freedom. This isn’t religious freedom,” Rabbi Greene said. He said that Atlanta has great religious freedom and that any protective legislation is unnecessary.
Similar legislation failed last year amid opposition from big businesses such Coca-Cola, and Rabbi Lesser said Georgia’s desire to be pro-business could again be decisive. After the Republican gains in the fall elections, however, he said the bill has a 50-50 chance of passage.
The legislation will be challenged in court if it becomes law, Rabbi Lesser said.
Three Baptist ministers were the only clergy who spoke during the press conference, a likely response to a pro-legislation press conference held by members of the Georgia Baptist Convention two floors below a few minutes earlier. The pro-legislation ministers argued that the bill is needed to protect Christians in Georgia from unspecified discrimination.
The interfaith clergy gathered upstairs emphasized the absence of Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and other minority religious groups among those backing Teasley’s bill. Religious freedom, they said, has ample protection under the U.S. and Georgia constitutions and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which had the support of many of those opposing the new legislation.Rabbis Josh Lesser and Fred Greene are among the clergy listening intently to Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell of First Baptist Church of Decatur in Public Life press conference Jan. 28 at the Capitol. Photo by Michael Jacobs
“Georgia’s citizens and elected officials need to decide if they want to move forward or take our state back in time,” said the Rev. James Lamkin of Northside Drive Baptist Church. “As a Georgia Baptist, I do not want discrimination to happen in my name. Everyone has a right to their religious beliefs, but nobody has the right to discriminate.
“This is Atlanta, the home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We don’t teach hate here.”
Lamkin brought Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl into the discussion, citing his call for a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast to balance the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast and closing by quoting Frankl’s comment in “Man’s Search for Meaning” that freedom is only half the truth.
Those listening in a crowded fourth-floor meeting room included Shelley Rose from the Anti-Defamation League and Robbie Medwed from SOJOURN: Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity.
“These are the greatest advocates for religious freedom,” Rabbi Greene said about the ADL’s presence.
Rose said the ADL lobbied for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act because it closed some gaps in religious protection, but the current legislation is unnecessary and could have unintended consequences, including discrimination.
“Businesses should not be allowed to discriminate,” Rose said.
A letter released by Faith in Public Life at the opening of the legislative session in mid-January has attracted signatures from more than 100 clergy members, including 11 rabbis, although the only non-Reform rabbi on the list is Congregation Or Hadash Rabbi Analia Bortz.