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Religious protections are already in place

POSTED: March 3, 2014 7:52 p.m.

It is getting more and more difficult to exclude people who may look or believe a little differently than you.

If you run a public business and you want to refuse service to a customer who is African-American, federal law will not let you do that.

If you are the registrar of a college, you can’t deny someone admittance just because they happen to be black or Jewish or you’ll probably lose your tax-exempt status.

If you’re the city clerk of a municipality and a couple applies for a marriage license, you cannot refuse them a license just because you disapprove of the fact that one of them is white and the other is black. There’s a 1967 Supreme Court decision that overturned that particular custom.

One of the few groups of citizens that you can still legally discriminate against are people who happen to be gay.

There are several states where persons of the same sex can be denied the right to get married. Georgia is one of those states, having enacted a law forbidding these marriages and then adopting an amendment in 2004 that wrote the prohibition into the state constitution.

The bans on gay marriage are being overturned in state after state, however, and I would guess that within a year — two years at the most — Georgia’s prohibition on same-sex marriages will be swept away as well.

The biggest step in this process was last year’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that ruled the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional.

Under the provisions of DOMA, gay couples whose marriage was legally recognized by their state were not considered married in the eyes of the federal government, making them ineligible for such federal benefits as Social Security survivor benefits.

The Supreme Court limited its DOMA decision to federal law, with the justices declining to rule on the constitutionality of state laws prohibiting same-sex marriages. But it was clear those laws would soon start to topple — and they have.

In the months since the Supreme Court ruling, several more states have legalized same-sex marriages, while federal judges have struck down anti-gay laws in such locales as Utah, Texas and Kentucky.

As it becomes clear that laws prohibiting same-sex marriage are on the way out, conservative state legislators have mounted a last-ditch effort to pass bills that would still allow some forms of legal discrimination against gays.

These measures are typically given titles like the “Preservation of Religious Freedom Act” because they would allow businesses to refuse to serve gay customers if the business owner claimed to have religious objections.

One of these “religious freedom” laws was passed in Arizona but the state’s GOP governor, Jan Brewer, vetoed it at the urging of business groups and the state’s two U.S. senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake.

“I have not heard one example in Arizona where a business owner’s religious liberty has been violated,” Brewer said. “I sincerely believe that (the bill) has the potential to create more problems than it purports to solve. It could divide Arizona in ways that no one could imagine.”

Similar “religious freedom” bills were introduced in the Georgia General Assembly, but they lost momentum after Brewer’s well-publicized veto and they may not come up for a vote this session.

Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus), who authored the Senate version of the bill, gave an impassioned speech to his colleagues declaring: “There is a war going on against people of faith in this country and I think the evidence of that war is manifest ... evidence abounds that the last group of people in America it is OK to pick on are people of faith.”

McKoon has done some commendable things as a senator, including his fight to limit the money lobbyists can spend to get legislation passed. On this point, however, I think he is mistaken.

Making gay marriages legal is not going to destroy religious freedom. We don’t need religious protection laws because we already have one of the strongest measures in the world protecting the right to worship: the First Amendment.

It has been part of the U.S. Constitution for more than 220 years, and the last time I checked, it had not been repealed.

Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an internet news service at gareport.com that reports on state government and politics. He can be reached at tcrawford@gareport.com.

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