‘Religious Freedom’ Bill Debate Heats Up At Georgia Capitol

A rolling billboard in opposition to "religious freedom" legislation circles the Georgia Capitol.
A rolling billboard in opposition to "religious freedom" legislation circles the Georgia Capitol.
Credit Jason Parker / WABE

Baptists are divided on “religious freedom” legislation that’s been proposed in Georgia’s statehouse. On Wednesday, dueling groups of Baptist preachers showed up at the Capitol to speak for and against the bill.

On one side of the Capitol, a large group of Southern Baptists gathered in support along with bill sponsor Rep. Sam Teasley. Sen. Josh McKoon, who plans to propose a similar bill in the Georgia Senate was also there.

Those who favor the legislation say it’s needed to ensure state and local governments can’t infringe on the free exercise of religion without a compelling reason.

Don Hattaway, president of the Georgia Baptist Convention, told fellow preachers, “We simply want to exercise our faith without government intrusion, and that is something that we as Americans should all applaud and stand firmly to protect.”

On the other side, another group of Baptist ministers spoke in opposition along with members of other Christian denominations and several rabbis.

Rev. Timothy McDonald says it could lead to unjust treatment of gays, lesbians and other Georgians. McDonald is pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta.

“It’s not about religious freedom, it’s not about religious liberty, it is about the right to discriminate against gays, against women, children, African Americans,” McDonald says. “As a Georgian who happens to be a Baptist, I don’t want that done in my name.”

As the groups spoke, a rolling billboard circled the Capitol in opposition. The billboard is sponsored by Better Georgia and claimed if the legislation is approved, child abusers could use religious grounds to justify their actions. Supporters say those and other potential discrimination claims are unfounded.

Similar bills were proposed by Teasley and McKoon last year, but failed to gained passage after the LGBT community and several companies like Delta, Home Depot and Coca-Cola raised concerns.