Faith leaders oppose calls for religious freedom bill in Georgia

Sixty faith leaders have opposed calls for a religious freedom bill to be enacted in the state of Georgia.

Georgia State capitol

The leaders issued a joint letter the same day as religious conservatives attended 'Standing for our Faith' rally at the Georgia State Capitol. The rally was a response to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed's decision to sack fire chief Kelvin Cochran after he published a book containing his traditional views on homosexuality.

The signatories to the letter include church leaders from a range of Christian denominations and Rabbi Peter Berg of the Temple, Atlanta. They were hosted at the Capitol by Senator Nan Orrock.

"As faith leaders from diverse traditions, we believe freedom of religion is one of our most fundamental rights as Americans, but religious freedom does not give any of us the right to harm or exclude others," the letter reads.

The bill, which was originally sponsored by state representative Sam Teasley, seeks to "place a restriction on government's ability to unnecessarily burden a person's free exercise of religion," according to an interview with Teasley in the Marietta Daily Journal.

It was defeated last year after significant opposition from the business community, including large Georgia-based companies Coca-Cola and Home Depot, who spoke out against it. Even so, Teasley has said he plans to revive the bill in 2015.

And calls for the bill have been strengthened following the dismissal of the former Atlanta fire chief on 6 January, after he self-published a 162-page book last year entitled Who Told You That You Are Naked? Cochran's book is aimed at helping men overcome feelings of guilt over past sins and includes half a page on homosexuality.

Garland Hunt, chairman of the Network of Politically Active Christians, told Fox News yesterday: "This [Cochran's case] is one of those things that can bring people together from all of the political spectrum. This is about religious freedom. This is not about whether a person is conservative or liberal."

But clearly religious leaders are not united on whether religious freedom is under threat.

According to local Fox News Rabbi Peter Berg said: "One singular personnel matter should not be used as an example of why the law in Georgia needs to be changed."

In Tuesday's letter, the 60 faith leaders said: "We all have different views on the issue of marriage for same-sex couples, but we are united in condemnation of discrimination and in firm support of equal protection under the law."

They added that the proposed legislation "would put an individual's religious beliefs ahead of the common good" and would increase the burden on the courts and taxpayers with costly lawsuits.

They also said that the bill is unnecessary because freedom of religion is already guaranteed and protected, both by the US constitution and Georgia's State Constitution.

The faith leaders said such legislation could permit business to refuse to serve customers based on their religious objections.

"We believe that businesses that are open to the public should be open to everyone on the same terms. We strongly oppose giving for-profit corporations religious rights that could allow them to discriminate against employees based on any characteristic—from their religious practices to their sexual orientation. This principle harkens back to the civil rights movement and our nation's core values of equality and justice," they said.

Senator Orrock thanked the leaders for their perspective. "The business community is highly concerned. The religious community is highly concerned. We must be very clear that legislation like this is divisive and not good for Georgia," he said.