On March 21, 2016, RAC Director Rabbi Jonah Pesner sent the below letter to Governor Deal of Georgia, urging him to veto HB 757. This bill would have created an affirmative right to discriminate against many people, including the LGBT community. On March 28, 2016, Governor Deal vetoed HB 757. Read Governor Deal's veto statement here.
March 21, 2016
Governor Nathan Deal
206 Washington Street
111 State Capitol
Atlanta, Georgia 30334
Dear Governor Deal,
On behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose over 900 congregations represent over 1.5 million Jews across North America and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which represents over 2,000 Reform rabbis, as well as the 19 Reform congregations encompassing 22,000 Reform Jews in Georgia, I write today to urge you to veto HB 757, also known as “the Free Exercise Protection Act.” This dangerous bill sanctions discrimination under the guise of religious freedom, as it unnecessarily codifies protections already existent under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that could be misconstrued and misinterpreted beyond what is already recognized constitutionally. Further, in seeking to protect religious freedom, this law extends those protections so far as to create affirmative rights to do harm unto others.
As a rabbi, I know personally and professionally how the United States, through its Constitution and its laws, has protected, ensured and enhanced religious freedom and religious diversity, which has allowed the Jewish people to flourish in this country nearly unmatched anywhere else in the world. And as Jews remain a religious minority in our country and in your state, as diverse as they both are, we know the importance of maintaining a balance between religious freedom and the many other rights and freedoms that define who we are. This bill, though seemingly well-intentioned, would have nefarious, discriminatory effects. HB 757 would irrevocably tilt the balance in favor of religious freedom against laws that protect against discrimination, without even the opportunity to assess what is the appropriate equilibrium for each situation.
Our laws and Constitution already fully protect clergy and houses of worship of all faith traditions from being required to sanctify any marriage that violates their religious tenets. The Supreme Court decisions in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) and United States v. Windsor (2013) do not change that fact. The law is clear that houses of worship remain fully protected in their right to abide by the teachings of their faith and the government may neither require them to sanctify same-sex marriages nor deny them their tax-exempt status for failing to do so. Obergefell v. Hodges and United States v. Windsor reinforce a principle that has been fundamental to the United States since its founding: all people are created equal and thus deserve equal access to fairness and justice in our society. These decisions state clearly that opposite-sex and same-sex marriages must be recognized and treated equally by local, state and federal governments.
In our commitment to religious liberty and the conviction that all faiths must be allowed to abide by their own traditions, we believe firmly that current law protects the ability of all religions and denominations to flourish in the United States. Any new and unnecessary legislative effort – such as HB 757 – that would result in discrimination against the LGBT community or any other vulnerable population, must be opposed.
In light of the already existent wall-to-wall support for America’s houses of worship to make decisions regarding marriage, this wide-sweeping, harmful bill opens the door to discrimination against specific members of our community. This bill is bad for religious freedom, bad for equality and defies Georgia’s commitment to those fundamental values.
I urge you to veto HB 757.
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner
Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism