Decorative Scales of Justice in the CourtroomWritten by Don Byrd

Georgia lawmakers may soon consider religious freedom legislation generating controversy in the state. House Bill 29 is based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). It would bar the state from substantially burdening religious exercise unless necessary to further a compelling government interest. While that section of the bill largely mirrors the federal RFRA, other provisions in the proposed state law have raised questions.

Writing in the Macon Telegraph, David Cooke, a district attorney and a board member of the Baptist Joint Committee, expressed his concern that language in the bill protecting parental rights goes too far.

Freedom of religion is one of our most fundamental rights as Americans. That is why it is already protected in the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution and Georgia’s Constitution. But unlike our constitutional protections for freedom of religion, this new law would sometimes put an individual’s religious beliefs ahead of the common good, including, even, the welfare of our children.

We shouldn’t let a cleverly named bill pass through the General Assembly when the results could allow a person to ignore Georgia’s child welfare laws by claiming “deeply held religious beliefs.” This is not a far-fetched idea.

In Utah, a federal judge relied on a law very similar to what is being proposed now in Georgia to rule that a member of a fundamentalist offshoot of the Mormon faith did not have to comply with an investigation of alleged child labor law violations because doing so would require him to disclose information about his religious sect, in violation of his beliefs.

Imagine all they ways a child could be harmed with this new law.

Noting Cooke’s concern, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jim Galloway writes today that Baptists are vocal on both sides of the debate, with former Southern Baptist Convention officials expressing support for the bill.

Last year, we went through a similar debate regarding proposed RFRA legislation in Georgia. The Baptist Joint Committee opposed the measure as a flawed version of the federal law. That bill did not pass. The precise language of this year’s bill as it moves through debate in the legislature is still unknown. Stay tuned.