ATLANTA, Ga – It has been a year since we looked at the current debates over RFRAs or Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. In 2013, we reported on a Kentucky bill that had been prompted by concerns over the safety of Amish Buggies. In March 2014, Arizona’s infamous “anti-gay” bill was making news, and eventually vetoed. This past summer SCOTUS ruled in the Hobby Lobby case, raising awareness of the application of RFRA laws within society.
These are only three examples of a far reaching legislative battle over the boundaries and practical exercise of religious freedom. Basically, the debate comes down to whether we need more precise legislation to protect religious freedom or whether the state and federal constitutions are enough.
In the past month, the debate has flared up in the deep south. Up until February, there were two proposed “religious freedom” bills before Georgia’s state legislature. Representative Sam Teasley’s (R-Marietta) HB218 called “Preventing Government Overreach on Religious Expression Act,” and State Senator Josh McKoon’s (R-Columbus) SB129 called “Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”
When SB129 was approved by the Georgia State Senate on March 5, Teasley abandoned HB218 and joined in supporting McKoon’s bill as it moved into the House. Opponents are calling this bill the harshest state RFRA yet, because the bill is very open-ended in defining burden and religious exercise. For example, the bill reads:
‘Exercise of religion’ means any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief, including but not limited to the practice or observance of religion under Paragraphs III and IV of Section I, Article I of the 74 Constitution of this state or the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, or the use, building, or conversion of real property for the purpose of religious exercise. [71-76]
The recent Senate approval raised the volume on the conversation, bringing out some new players, including Atlanta-resident Elton John. He said, “[SB129] claims to protect religious freedom and encourage tolerance. In reality, it encourages the same discrimination that’s haunted the South for too long.” John goes on to explain how the bill will target Atlanta’s LGBT community, calling it “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” that will only “institutionalize the hate some people hold in their hearts.”
On March 11, the Aquarian Tabernacle Church, based in Washington state, published its own response to the Georgia bill. High Priest Dusty Dionne wrote:
We thank the state of Georgia for its forward thinking and dedication to religious freedom. It has been a reality long-held by Wiccans that the laws did not extend far enough toward our own exercise of religion [50-15A-2. line 71] to be truly encompassing of our freedom to worship. The original Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as passed by our illustrious president Bill Clinton, was a landmark move that opened the door for minority religions, and small local churches to have more safety to worship within their communities than ever before. This new bill will create sweeping changes that will open the doors for the Wiccans within Georgian communities to worship, work, and LIVE their religion to its fullest.
Dionne goes on to list a number of ways in which the Georgia RFRA will support Wiccan religious practice and lifestyles, including the growing of sacred plants and “multi-partner relationships.” Dionne told The Wild Hunt that in no way is that list of potential protections exhaustive.
Dionne’s sent his article to all Georgia state senators as well as the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC). On March 13, AJC writer Jim Galloway responded in a post titled “An Unusual Voice enters the religious liberty debate.” Another local news site picked up on the story in a post titled, “Georgia’s Religious Freedom Act is Opposed by Elton John, But Supported by the Wiccans.”
It wasn’t long before ATC’s article began to pick up momentum in cyberspace. One writer said that the statement “will go down in the Annals of the History of Bluff-Calling,” and that he hopes “the Aquarian Tabernacle Church pushes this as far as they can.” A Heathen blogger simply said, “Honor to the Wiccans who came up with this one” and then contemplated whether Heathens should “try some humorous responses to discrimination as well.”
As Dionne’s article cycled around, Georgia Wiccans began to speak out, and many questioned Dionne’s approached. Atlanta-resident and blogger Sara Amis responded saying, “We can fight for our own,” pointing out the number of Wiccans present in the state. In “Pray Naked Re-Dux,” Amis wrote, “Dusty Dionne … greets this news with less hostility than I, also with a list of new freedoms the law could grant to Wiccans. (But he left out naked rituals in public! an oversight I’m sure.)” Having followed this debate since its beginnings, Amis goes on to say:
The Georgia state constitution already offers very robust protections to religious expression, even more than the First Amendment. Unnecessary laws are generally a pack of trouble on principle, and many people feel…I am one of them…that the only “protection” this will actually offer is for bigots in mainstream faiths.
Other Wiccans voiced direct frustration with ATC’s efforts. Like Amis, blogger and Wiccan Priestess Lydia M. Crabtree is opposed to RFRA legislation, but she expressed real concerns over the strategies used by the Washington-based ATC. She said that they “are confusing the issue.”
Agreeing with Crabtree is local Wiccan Priest Matthaios Theadoros. He said that he believes the article is “well-intended” but that he “uncomfortable” with the methodologies. Theodorus said, “Instead of working to undermine RFRA, I think it is only going to cast suspicion on Wicca.” He explained:
They are seeming to set up Wicca as one that participates in polyamory and insinuates some sort of questionable herb use. Though some Wiccans may be polyamorous, it is disingenuous to suggest that it is an inherent part of the religion. To suggest Wiccans should be exempt from urine or blood tests on the basis that Wiccans do not want others having our essence is going to come off as foolish at best and suspicious at worst considering that part comes after a section on allowing the use of certain herbs that cannot be locally grown
As Amis pointed out, the AJC reporter seemed to be “confused about whether [the ATC article was] a hoax.” And that was the overriding sentiment present in local reactions. Was ATC serious? Was it a hoax? Was it bluff? When asked, Dionne confirmed that he was indeed serious and explained:
If the bill goes through, this will be part of what we will be coaching Wiccans to accept as part of their rights, and then we will start dealing with winning the court cases, and that will cement our rights. Change can be made, and if they give us a framework of law that they think is going to give them exclusive religious rights, then what we are going to do is set our beliefs into that framework, and we legally should have the same expansion of our rights.
Dionne pointed out that this type of work is part of the ATC legacy. Peter Pathfinder was instrumental in past religious freedom battles. Dionne, now as the High Priest of the Keepers of the Gate ATC Mother Church, High Summoner of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church Intl. and Consort to the Arch Priestess Belladonna LaVeau, is compelled to pick up that baton. When asked why the Georgia bill and not the many others being proposed in other states, he said, “I am new in my position. Give me some time.”
And, there are many other RFRAs being debated currently. Americans United (AU) recently published an report on the various bills that have either “picked up steam” or “stalled out,” including the Federal RFRA.
As for Georgia’s bill, the debate rages on. Proponents continue to defend SB129’s non-discriminatory basis, and that it’s only purpose is to protect “people of faith” and their right to practice.
Opponents argue that the RFRA has nothing to do with religious freedom. Just yesterday, Georgia Unites Against Discrimination held a rally on the steps of the capitol to protest this point. Like many others, the group stresses that the U.S. Constitution and the state constitution are more than enough to ensure religious freedom in Georgia.However, there is one detail being overlooked in this entire conversation – one that may be of particular interest to Georgia’s Pagans and others practicing minority religions. The proposed bill references “Paragraphs III and IV of Section I, 19 Article I” of the Georgia constitution as the marker of the state’s religious freedom laws.This portion of the constitution reads, “Each person has the natural and inalienable right to worship God…”
Because of its open-ended language, SB129 actually nullifies that particular criteria. It defines the “Exercise of Religion” as “including but not limited to the practice or observance of religion under Paragraphs III and IV of Section I, Article I of the Constitution…” In other words, while the new bill may open doors to discriminatory behavior, abuse and similar stated issues, it also appears to be serving to undermine a section of Georgia’s state constitution that is, in the end, problematic itself.
The Georgia House is scheduled to vote on SB129 on April 2.