Legislation that could have allowed businesses and individuals to use religion to discriminate failed Thursday night in Georgia following a national backlash to similar laws that passed in Indiana and Arkansas.
"Religious freedom is a fundamental American value, but the debate around Indiana has made it crystal-clear that it should not serve as a smokescreen for authorizing discrimination or letting individuals use their religious beliefs to harm others,” said Louise Melling, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union. “The conversation has forced politicians to reconsider policies that could allow discrimination and harm to countless people by denying them access to basic rights, such as employment, health care, or education."
Muslim-Americans in Kennesaw, Georgia who had hoped to use space in a retail shopping center as a prayer center recently had to confront hateful and ignorant comments from some residents, accusing them of being "enemies" and "infiltrators."
Even though community members who had applied for the permit had agreed to parking and other restrictions, the Kennesaw City Council refused to issue a permit by a 4-1 vote. The city's "retail only" excuse quickly fell apart considering that the city council had granted a permit to a Pentecostal church in a retail center. This pointed to blatant discrimination.
Georgia is the latest state to consider legislation that could sanction discrimination in the name of religious freedom.
There are two versions of the Georgia bill – a state House version, HB 1023, and a state Senate version, SB 377. Both would affirm the “right to act or refuse to act in a manner substantially motivated by a sincerely held religious tenet or belief whether or not the exercise is compulsory or a central part or requirement of the person’s religious tenets or beliefs.” Where those beliefs conflict with local, state or federal law, the government would have to prove that the law is meant to pursue a “a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”
The American Civil Liberties Union is sending letters to sheriff departments across Georgia to ask them to address the practice of requiring detained individuals to remove religious headwear. The organization says it’s making the request after learning about several people who were in custody in Georgia jails that were forced to remove their religious attire.
The ACLU says it’s aware of three incidents where those detained in Georgia jails were asked to remove their religious headwear. Azadeh Shahshahani Directs the National Security/Immigrants' Rights Project for the ACLU of Georgia. She says unless the government can show the restriction is absolutely necessary and is for a very important purpose, the headwear’s removal violates the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.
“The purpose of the letter is just to ensure the sheriffs are aware of what the law is and to ensure individuals’ rights to religious liberty are being respected going forward.”
The ACLU of Georgia has sent letters and public records requests to sheriffs across the state to address the practice of requiring detained individuals to remove religious headwear. This practice was brought to our attention when several detained individuals of faith were forced to remove their religious headgear at various Georgia jails, despite assertions of religious obligations. We have advised the sheriffs that unless the government can demonstrate that this requirement is “the least restrictive means” of furthering “a compelling governmental interest,” the practice of forcing detained individuals to remove religious attire violates individuals’ rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) as well as other legal authorities. In addition to asking the sheriffs to produce pertinent policies and any complaints they had received, we urged them to review their policies and guidelines to ensure they are consistent with RLUIPA and other legal requirements. To view a copy of the letter click here.