County votes to support controversial ‘religious freedom’ bills

Leonard Presberg speaks in opposition to a religious freedom bill proposed by State Senator Marty Harbin (far right) at Thursday’s county commission meeting. (Staff Photos by Christopher Fairchild)

Passions were inflamed at Thursday night’s County Board of Commissioners meeting with discussion of discrimination and religious freedom.

Offered up by Commissioner Randy Ognio, a controversial resolution would see the county ask the Congress of the United States (with House Resolution 514) and the state congress (with Senate Bill 233) to protect religious freedom by any means necessary. Four of the five commissioners voted to throw the county’s support behind the bill and make it part of the county’s legislative packet.

The audience was vocal, both in support and opposition of the resolution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), with the crowd in favor asking for help in protecting their freedoms and the opposing crowd questioning the need or reasoning for throwing support behind the bills and saying it opens the door to discrimination.

The item was moved to near the front of the agenda, in part to allow State Senator Marty Harbin to speak and share a short video attempting to explain the importance of the bill.

Harbin relayed a story he had heard earlier in the day about a man planting an apple tree with his grandson. When his grandson asks him why he is planting it since he will be dead before he can enjoy the fruits of his labor, the man explains that he is planting it for his son and for the next generation.

The story, which was told by Governor Nathan Deal during his State of the State Address about the growing prosperity of the state coming out of the recession, symbolized to Harbin the importance of planting things for his children and his grandchildren and thinking about the next generation. Harbin called his bill, Senate Bill 233, a mirror image of federal law where one must “show a compelling government reason for that law to be enforced and violate someone’s deeply-held religious convictions, and that’s really all it does,” he said.

State Representatives Derrick Jackson and Debra Bazemore spoke in opposition to Harbin.

“The legislation or ordinances are not conducive to good governing,” said Jackson. “We all took an oath to do no harm. Our laws reflect who we are. This is why Governor Deal continues to veto Senate Bill 233, for such a measure doesn’t belong in the state of Georgia.”

Jackson repeated Deal’s words, “Our state is doing exceptionally well, and we’ve seen rather disastrous consequences from other states. I see no reason or justification or rationale for this type of legislation in Georgia.”

Bazemore, among others, disagreed with the use of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Harbin’s video.

“I don’t think Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who did love the Lord and was a minister, would be approving such a thing as Senate Bill 233,” she said. “It is very divisive. We have enough division right now, we don’t need any more.”

Jackson pointed to the booming film industry in the state, one that accounted $240 million ten years ago and is now at $9.5 billion, as a huge boost to infrastructure, schools, and quality of life.

“Fayette County is moving forward in the right way. Senate Bill 233 and any other ordinances will take us back in time,” he said. “It does send a message of discrimination. (Harbin’s) video says it doesn’t, but when you read the legislation, and I am one that reads legislation before I vote on it, it is discriminatory.”

Leonard Presberg, school board member and chair of the Fayette County Democrats, chimed in on how it could negatively affect Fayette’s image to the world.

“Our economic fortunes are tied up in telling stories to the world and having people come here from all different backgrounds, all different places and feel like Fayette County is a welcoming place for them to come and live and create these stories that are seen around the world.”

Peter Lewin, a former government teacher at Fayette County High School for 15 years, referred back to the First Amendment, that says in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

“This bill should not under any circumstances be debated or voted on,” he said, noting that nothing prevents a student from praying in a public school, only that there can be no instruction for students as a whole to pray. “It’s government getting involved in religion, and it has no business doing so.”

Marcia Hendershot wondered why it was even a topic for discussion.

“In reading the proposed resolution, I just kept asking myself why is this necessary,” she said. “A skeptical person might say that it allows people to discriminate. Do we want to go there?”

Frank Gardner and Harry Bolton wondered the same about why it was even on the agenda.

State Senator Marty Harbin talks to the crowd about his proposed religious freedom bill.

“I’m not going to speak for it or against it. I will say I think it’s out of place to ask our commissioners to make a religious statement, and we pay you to do administrative work for our county,” said Gardner.

“We do have enshrined in our constitution the right to religious liberty. I’m not quite sure we need to add to that,” said Bolton. “Just as a reminder, Christ was called upon at the beginning of this meeting. I think he would be much more pleased if we would call on our citizens to love one another rather than enshrining into the law the right to discriminate.”

“This bill is just a way to use religion to discriminate against other people,” said Bonnie Williamson. “As long as you’re doing business with the public, everyone that’s a part of the public should be able to come in to purchase or do whatever is offered at the facility.”

Williamson referenced Harbin earlier not wanting to speak with his back turned to the crowd.

“As for the senator, to me, this bill, you could’ve stood here and turned your back on people because everyone that signs it into law is turning their back on a great portion of Americans.”

Lewin felt that the bill does not mesh with what America is about.

“We all believe in family values. I was raised with very strong family values, and one of the values that my father taught me, above all else, was tolerance.”

Jane Owens spoke in support of RFRA as someone who could personally be affected.

“I am a musician who plays a lot of weddings, and, if someone came to me and asked me to play for a same-sex wedding, by my religious conscience, I would have to say I cannot do that,” Owens said. “I should not be denied the right under my religious convictions to say no that I would not play for a same-sex marriage. I should not be called discriminatory for that. That is my compelling reason to support RFRA.”

Owens touched on her differing definitions for certain key words in the debate.

“I do not consider myself discriminatory in the sense that you’re thinking of it possibly,” she said. “We are all discriminatory every minute of our lives. Every decision we make in life is a form of discrimination because, by its very definition, discriminate means to choose between this or that.”

She referenced the Bible and Jesus’s greatest commandment “to love your neighbor as yourself.”

“It also depends on how you define your terms,” she said. “What is loving?”

“The definition of love is not accepting everything,” said Jennifer Mouath. “For me to participate in a same-sex wedding by providing a cake or music or flowers would be unloving in my mind. It would be unloving because I would condoning, I would be celebrating with that couple in something that I feel is an unprofitable lifestyle, and to me that’s not love.”

Owens also wondered if the pushback could be part of a more nefarious and anti-Christian discrimination.

“In every one of these cases that have come before the courts in recent years, they’ve all been against Christians. Why is that? Why has no Muslim been brought to court yet?” she said, having noted she would support the rights of a Muslim to not cook pork in a restaurant. “There must be another agenda going here.”

Kimberly Hearn, a public school teacher speaking in opposition to RFRA, shared her reasoning.

“I cannot say, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t teach Johnny because…’” she said, sharing her personal ‘agenda.’ “My loved ones and I do have an agenda: I want them allowed to live with all the rights given to non-LGBT people.

“They don’t want special treatment, they want equal treatment that is fair.”

Judi Wilson thanked Harbin and Ognio for their support of the bill.

“It does my old tired bones really good to see men that have the courage and boldness to stand for what they know to be right,” she said. “This community has reelected y’all, and the reason for that is you represent our traditional Judeo-Christian values.”

Wilson said the fight is about protecting what Christians hold dear.

“It’s not bigotry, it’s in response to the assault on the First Amendment and the assault on the church and the assault on our children and our values and our God,” she said. “This isn’t about some people that have confusion in their life, this is about multi-billionaires who have connections to NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association) and other child abuse organizations pushing their agenda to get God out of the picture so we have no foundation for our children to stand on.”

Some asked to ignore the potential negative effects on the economy from movie industry or big business backlash.

“I ask my fellow citizens here in Fayette County to pray over this and reflect on the claims of loss of revenue to the county and to the state. Is that really going to happen? Do we really want to sell our souls and give up our liberties on the altar of economic growth?” asked Randy Hough. “I don’t think so, because that is bogus too. Nobody is going to leave here over that possibility. I think it’s just a trumped up fear play to divert attention from the basic facts of why we should uphold the First Amendment.”

“We don’t need to be fearing them,” said Wilson. “We need to be fearing a holy God that’s going to rain down on this nation his wrath as he did recorded in the word of God because everything they have can be with a match destroyed, with a heart attack destroyed.”

“Good law is good law, irregardless of what it’s going to do to the economy,” said Mouath.

Rep. Bazemore and Presberg were among the many asking the commissioners not to pass the resolution.

“This is very divisive, and if you look and see how many of us said no to this you would also say no,” said Bazemore.

“The freedom to discriminate against other people because you have a religious freedom reason for it is not something that we should tolerate in this county, it’s not something that we should support, and it’s not something that you should give the impression that you support,” said Presberg. “You have to hear from all the people who stood up today, from all of the businesses that have stood up continuously against these measures, that that is the message that you’re sending and don’t send that message.”

The commissioners disagreed, voting 4-1 to pass it, with only Charles Rousseau in opposition.

Steve Brown admonished those calling the bill discriminatory, reading the wording of the bill as “the government has to show compelling interests for why its policies should override an individual’s religious freedom.”

“All the bill is telling you is your government cannot suppress your religious freedom. The bill directly addresses oppression by the government,” Brown said, saying it would not affect civil disputes such as a wedding cake baker refusing service to a same-sex couple. “People that tell me they have read the bill and it’s discriminatory, I’ve gotta say go back and read the bill.”

Charles Oddo agreed with Brown that the bill should not viewed as discriminatory.

“I don’t see it as a discriminatory bill, and that seems to be the crux of the whole matter,” he said. “I look at discrimination as more proactive than defensive, and I don’t see that here.”

Rousseau shared the question of several in wondering why the resolution was brought before the commissioners.

“Does this move us towards elevating the quality of life in this community from a standpoint of our charge and our responsibility?” he asked, questioning what they were actually voting on. “Is this a litmus test to see how religious we are?

Commissioners Steve Brown, Eric Maxwell, and Randy Ognio converse after the vote to support the religious freedom bills.

“We’re all being pulled into this, and I don’t know if it meets the requirements for what we’re supposed to do here.”

He noted that it was taking precedence over the commissioners handling the actual business of the county, as evidenced by the resolution talk being moved up on the agenda in front of other items.

“We haven’t even gotten to our core issues of our responsibilities that we did take an oath on,” he said. “It’s not in our purview right now, or period, in terms of our responsibilities as they’re outlined.”

Chairman Eric Maxwell said he understood both Rousseau and Brown’s points before ultimately voting with Brown.

“I would prefer personally to not deal with these kinds of issues. I agree with Charles (Rousseau) that this is kind of out of our area. It’s not dealing truly with county business.”

Maxwell acknowledged that more people in the room were against the bill, but that did not sway his vote.

“This one, to me, is an easy one to decide,” he said. “This is protecting folks. This is not saying you go do this, that, and the other to somebody else.

“This one looks like a fairly easy one to go through.”

Asked after the meeting why passing the resolution was important to Fayette County, Ognio said it’s about more than the county.

“It’s important that everybody have the freedom to do what they believe,” he said. “You shouldn’t be forced to do something against your beliefs.”

He acknowledged he did know not of any incidents in Fayette where religious freedom had been infringed upon and he hoped to keep it that way.

“No, not that I know of, and I hope there won’t be,” he said. “If you can be proactive and prevent incidents, that’s what were trying to do.”

Brown maintained that many were misunderstanding the intent of the bill itself.

“I think one of the big misunderstandings is it prevents government from oppressing individuals,” he said. “It has nothing to do with civil cases between private individuals, so all these wedding and florist controversies you hear have nothing to do with this law, and government oppression should be something that we’re all concerned with.”

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Christopher Dunn has been the sports editor for Fayette Newspapers since 2011, in addition to running Fayette Game Day magazine. He is a graduate of Fayette County schools, as well as a graduate of Georgia State University with a degree in journalism. Follow him on twitter @fayettesports.


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