Again rebuffing pleas from residents and elected officials in attendance at Thursday afternoon’s meeting, the County Board of Commissioners voted to move forward in asking the State to support the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) as part of their legislative packet.
Originally approved in January of 2018 following a heated debate, the resolution will now be part of the county’s Legislative Package sent to the Georgia General Assembly for consideration in their next session, along with resolutions on fluoride in drinking water, Ad Valorem Tax distribution, and the legal age for boating.
State Senate Bill 233 reflects House Resolution 514 of the U.S. Congress that says in part it “expresses the sense of the House of Representatives that the U.S. Government: (1) should not infringe upon the ability of American citizens to act in accordance with their sincerely held religious beliefs, and (2) condemns any behavior by the states that limits the ability of individuals to express such beliefs.”
Commissioner Charles Rousseau asked his colleagues to reconsider the need for a resolution from Fayette County.
“I’m going to suggest to my colleagues once again that this is beyond our purview, in my estimation, of providing services to residents of the county,” he said. “It has created a divisive attitude or perspective that I think would be wise and prudent to discontinue.”
Rousseau wondered why the commissioners even needed to dip their toes into a matter that is already set to be reviewed and adjudicated at the state level.
“We’re public servants,” he said, noting that heavier political issues are to be settled at the state and federal levels. “We’re supposed to provide services for people on the lower level, where the rubber meets the road.”
Despite the early start time of the meeting, which was set many months in advance, the audience was large, and more than a dozen impassioned residents made their voices heard at the podium.
Walter Hopewell likened the bill’s potential effect to when he moved to the South in the 1960s and faced discrimination as a black man and was refused service in many establishments.
“They thought they were doing the ‘right thing,” he recounted. “If we start telling people where they can and cannot go because of some religious conviction of somebody else, people aren’t going to stand for that. They don’t have to, not anymore.
“It’s another excuse to do something that we all know is completely wrong, and for us to even accept it makes us wrong.”
With no known cases locally where a business owner’s religious rights have been in jeopardy, many wonder why Fayette’s support for the resolution was even necessary.
“It seems to me that religious freedom is covered (in the Constitution). I don’t know why we need a resolution calling for more religious freedom, except to possibly signal a tacit sanctioning of discrimination based on religious grounds,” said Susan Samson.
“I like the way things are working, and I don’t know why we would even need to consider a religious freedom bill,” he said.
Jovan Purifoy wondered where you draw the line on which religions would be protected.
“Who determines what religions get freedom? What you may consider a religion, I may not consider a religion,” she said. “You’re opening the door for a lot of people to come under the umbrella of religion. You’re opening the door for people to put their stamp on anything. You have people who celebrate Satanism. There are a lot of people who celebrate a lot of things.”
Samson had similar thoughts.
“I’m asking you to consider unintended consequences,” she said. “If a non-Christian business, for example, said well, we don’t want to serve Christians because they don’t serve our God and they don’t believe in our religious values, would that not be discrimination? And would that be alright with you?”
Elected officials also joined in the chorus.
Member of the Georgia House of Representatives Derrick Jackson urged the commissioners to listen to the people and drop the resolution.
“This is not the right thing to do. We continue to fight those same fights that our citizens ask us not to fight. Listen to the citizen,” he said. “Out of 159 counties, Fayette County is the only county to pass this resolution. We’re better than this. We’re Fayette County.”
He echoed concerns about the perception outsiders may get about Fayette.
“It makes it look like we’re closing our borders,” he said. “Let’s build bridges. Let’s legislate by the will of the people.”
City of Fayetteville Mayor Ed Johnson feared that it could have dire consequences for the county’s budding economy.
“Why is this being driven when it really will single Fayette County out as a county that endorses discrimination?” he asked. “It signals the fact that Fayette County claims to be a devoutly Christian community but yet our elected representatives are doing the devil’s work.”
He warned that businesses may pack up and leave or never even come because they do not want to be associated with Fayette and a perceived support of discrimination.
“I hope you’ve listened because if you vote contrary to what the citizens are saying, I assure you there’s going to be hell to pay.”
Aaron Wright was the lone person in the crowd who spoke in support of the resolution.
“We want to be kind, loving, gracious, generous to all people, and our freedoms to do so are absolutely critical,” he said.
He said that discrimination is a fact of daily life in how we make all of our choices, and limiting that runs the risk of restricting personal freedoms.
“You discriminate every single second of your life: who am I going to be friends with, who am I going to allow my children to be friends with, what church am I going to, which store am I going to go to,” he said. “Discrimination is a vital and critical part of our freedoms as Americans, and we want to avoid the situation in Nazi Germany where you have a government powerful enough to tell me where my family or my community can or cannot do business. We want to reserve that freedom for each individual to make their own choice.”
Commissioner Randy Ognio noted that the state resolution would merely mirror what is already federal law.
“I think if you really want religious freedom, you need something that says you can have it,” he said. “We, as a country, expect it, but we don’t really have it.”
Commissioner Steve Brown maintained that the legislation exclusively pertains to the government and its actions towards the people.
“The legislation only covers government actions against the citizens. It does not cover Joe’s barbecue, Julie’s florist, the day care center, it doesn’t cover any of that,” he said. “It’s about as broad as you can get it.”
Both Commissioner Charles Oddo and Chairman Eric Maxwell lamented that they wished they did not have to vote on the matter, but the resolution was not mandated by the State and was purely a decision made by the commissioners to inject their opinion into the matter.
“I can’t disagree with Commissioner Rousseau that this was not the business of the county, but we’re here voting on this,” said Oddo.
He said he failed to see why people think it could lead to discrimination.
“I’m really at a loss to understand why we think there will be a rampant rush to discriminate,” said Oddo. “I don’t see this as discriminatory. I hope to God it isn’t.”
Rousseau’s colleagues ignored his pleas and those of the crowd and voted 4-1 to approve, adding the resolution to their legislative packet.