Georgia recently dodged a PR bullet, and advocates of Georgia religious liberty legislation should take notice.
Rep. Jason Spencer (R-Woodbine) submitted House Bill 3 on Monday, Nov. 14, the first day lawmakers could file legislation for the 2017 session. It proposed amending Georgia’s 1951 anti-masking law, which undermined the Klan by forcing its members to reveal their faces in public.
Spencer’s bill would have made three changes:
- Added “or she” so that a person would be guilty of a misdemeanor when “he or she” violated the statute.
- Defined “upon any public way or property,” the area covered by the law, to include driving a vehicle on a public road.
- Specified that you can’t conceal your face in a state-issued photo ID.
Within two days, that seemingly innocuous legislation was being derided across the country as a proposed burqa ban, even though it made no mention of any religion, let alone Islam, and didn’t extend the reach or application of the anti-masking law except to make explicit what any court would have inferred: that the law applies to women as well as men.
H.B. 3 would have done almost nothing. Under a 1990 Georgia Supreme Court ruling, the anti-masking law applies only against conduct meant to provoke a fear of intimidation, threats or violence and doesn’t cover religious garb.
Michael Perry, an Emory University constitutional law professor, told The Associated Press that Muslim women would have been safe under that interpretation. He also said the law already applies to women without the “she.”
As for the rule on photo IDs, it would have been redundant: The Georgia Department of Driver Services already requires the entire face to be visible.
H.B. 3 was a bad piece of legislation, so we’re glad Spencer plans to withdraw it. But his stated reason has nothing to do with the bill’s pointlessness and everything to do with “the visceral reaction” it sparked.
The American Civil Liberties Union’s national office called the bill “despicable.”
The head of the Georgia chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations called it a “slap in the face of Georgia Muslims.”
Senate President Pro Tem David Shafer (R-Duluth) led Georgia politicians on both sides of the aisle in attacking the legislation. He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Too many people on both sides of the religious freedom debate only want to protect freedom when it comes to their own beliefs.”
Again, this is a bill that may very well have been intended to restrict women in burqas — an offensive goal worth opposing — but likely would have done nothing. And it caused national outrage within days.
That’s our political atmosphere now. People are watching like hawks for any sign of bias, discrimination or prejudice in the public arena. No one will be able to slip such measures into law; that’s a good thing.
People also are willing to believe the worst in elected officials. There’s no nuance, no benefit of the doubt.
Just wait until the next round of religious liberty legislation at the state Capitol. Regardless of intent or practical effect, any such bill is sure to be portrayed around the nation as bigoted, anti-LGBTQ, perhaps anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish. Passage would be sure to bring boycotts of our state.
No possible but unlikely benefit from any religious liberty proposal would be worth the cost. Please, General Assembly, spare us the embarrassment this session.