Why everyone should be concerned about the First Amendment Defense Act

Local LGBT activist argues the potential consequences, from counseling to adoption

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Yesterday, a state Senate committee recommended the First Amendment Defense Act, a controversial piece of legislation, move forward for a vote. In an opinion column, Robbie Medwed, an Atlanta native and LGBT activist, argues the measure’s potential impacts.

State Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus, would be the first person to tell you his Senate Bill 284, the so-called “First Amendment Defense Act” that’s working its way through the Georgia General Assembly, does not allow discrimination against LGBT people. He’s wrong.

In fact, the bill, now combined with the Pastor Protection Act, does allow discrimination against LGBT people. It also allows discrimination against anyone who has sex outside of marriage (single mothers and anyone else’s who’s even a little bit sexually active without a ring), anyone who disagrees that same-sex marriage should be OK, and, in a stunningly shallow attempt to hold everyone to the same standards, anyone who is against same-sex marriage. Kirk really thinks that allowing anyone to discriminate against anyone makes the bill fair. Apparently he hasn’t thought that maybe he should just not endorse discrimination, which would be far easier.

As it stands now — and things change every day — FADA and PPA have been combined into one super bill that guarantees religious clergy the right to not be forced to perform a same-sex wedding if they don’t want to — already a right guaranteed by the First Amendment — and allows any religious nonprofit to use tax dollars to discriminate against couples it doesn’t like.

So what’s this mean in reality? Consider the religiously affiliated adoption agency, homeless shelter, or disability assistance program. Many of these agencies receive state or federal grants because they serve the general population as an agent of the government, in whose stead they provide services. Under the PPA/FADA hybrid, these agencies would be able to completely ignore the few non-discrimination ordinances that do exist in Georgia and those on the federal level to deny services to LGBT families. Same-sex couples could be prohibited from adopting children. A disabled person who supports same-sex marriage could be denied medical care in a private hospital or even a ride from a private transportation agency. Transgender people, LGBT youth, or married couples could be denied space in a homeless shelter. In a city where 40 percent of the homeless youth are LGBT, it’s downright scary to think how many kids could be affected.

Many of these agencies sign contracts requiring them to operate according to federal or local non-discrimination ordinances (there are no state-level non-discrimination laws in Georgia). If they violate these ordinances, as they’d be allowed to do under FADA, they would be in breach of contract and at risk of losing their grant money. Or worse yet, if they chose to fight, they could start a legal firestorm where Georgia sues local municipalities, national organizations, or even the federal government. The costs to taxpayers as the state engages in litigation could be astronomical.

These situations are bad enough, but it gets worse. Supporters of the bill this week referenced the case of an Augusta State University student who was kicked out of her counseling program because she refused to conform to the American Counseling Association’s standards of practice. Rather than meet professional standards matched by the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association that declare so-called “reparative therapy” off limits to its members, the student insisted she had the right to engage in the dangerous practice. Thankfully, a judge disagreed with her and she changed her course study and job training. If this bill passes, ASU would be forced to allow the student to continue, earn her degree, and begin her practice as an independent counselor.

Victims of domestic violence are also at risk. As of this moment there are 46 state-certified domestic violence centers in Georgia that must abide by non-discrimination ordinances. Under FADA, those ordinances would be obliterated and victims of domestic violence could be denied safety and access to adequate medical care. A single mother could be denied treatment at a private hospital if her doctor believes that she is a sinner, and anyone could be denied HIV or other STI treatment at certain medical facilities if the doctors or nurses believe their religion tells them their patients earned their punishment by abandoning God.

Even closer to home, a lawfully married couple could be denied a family plan at the local cell phone store if the clerk decided they had a “sincerely held religious belief” that there was something wrong with their marriage. (Interracial marriage, we see you.) Sure, all of the national cell phone providers have internal non-discrimination policies, as do many private companies. But in Georgia? If an employee disagreed with that policy and FADA became law, they could sue the company for having a non-discrimination policy and they would win. Company-wide non-discrimination policies would become useless.

I want to be clear: I strongly believe a religious agency should have the right to serve whoever and however they want. However, to use taxpayer funds — state, local, or federal tax dollars — to push their own religious beliefs onto others is absolutely unacceptable. It would be no less than state-sponsored discrimination. Georgia’s been on the losing end of that battle for decades. That’s never been a fight we’ve won and it won’t be one we’d win now. Religious freedom is one of the most well-protected rights we have. It’s guaranteed in both the US and Georgia State Constitution and it is alive and well, despite the scare tactics of the Fundamentalist Right.

The combined PPA/FADA super bill will most likely come up for a vote in the Georgia Senate this week. After that, it’s almost certainly smooth sailing through the House unless we all speak up and make sure our elected officials understand just how dangerous this proposal is.

Follow Robbie Medwed on twitter at @rjmedwed.