Georgia Governor Nathan Deal this week removed any doubt regarding the diminishing influence Christians have in America when on Monday he vetoed the Free Exercise Protection Act.
The bill was passed a couple of weeks ago by both chambers of state government to protect the rights of faith-based institutions to exercise their religious convictions in providing public services as well as in their hiring practices. The practical consequences of the bill would have been to protect churches that refuse to conduct homosexual marriages and to ensure churches wouldn’t be forced to hire employees who didn’t share their doctrinal convictions.
Like similar bills several other states have passed or are considering, Georgia’s bill was based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a federal bill signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993 that clarified religious freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment. But the political and legal landscape has changed so much in the last twenty-three years that the religious principles then taken for granted are now up for grabs. Evangelical Christians increasingly face a future where our biblical convictions place us at odds with the cultural, political, economic and legal dynamics influencing the nation’s future.
Governor Deal found all this out in a very public way. The Republican majority in both chambers of the General Assembly had no problem pushing the bill through and since Deal is himself a Republican no one doubted that he would sign it into law.
Then all heck broke loose. Various LGBT lobbying groups jumped into the fray and began their predictable accusations of discrimination. The federal government began making ominous noises about possible legal action against the state. Then big business weighed in, with companies like Disney, Delta and Coca-cola predicting dire consequences if Deal signed the bill. Hollywood hinted that Georgia’s film industry would be affected. Atlanta’s Chamber of Commerce announced that two major corporate relocations to the area had been cancelled because of the bill and future losses were sure to follow. The NCAA and the NFL even got involved, threatening to look elsewhere for future sports events if the bill became law—we should note in passing that if the NCAA and NFL assume a position of moral superiority you know something creepy is going on.
Liberal religious voices also spoke out against the act. Here’s my favorite:
Josh Noblitt, a gay pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church who is running for a seat in the state House of Representatives, said the bill simply doesn’t reflect the Southern hospitality at the core of Georgia, and at the core of American values. “We live in a diverse pluralistic society,” Noblitt said. “All this legislation we are seeing coming before the Georgia legislature seems to miss the point of all of that. It singles out people of faith to get an exemption that other people, for whatever reason, don’t get.”
Well, yes. Rev. Noblitt is correct but misses the larger point. The First Amendment indeed singles out people of faith for special consideration for many reasons, not the least of which is how the founders recognized that because of America’s unique beginnings in religious persecution religious freedom is the foundation for all the others. For that very reason Rev. Noblitt is now free to use clichés about diversity and pluralism as criticism of his political opponents. He would be better served not to be so quick to bite the hand that feeds him.
The pressure continued to mount and finally on Monday Governor Deal gave into it and vetoed the bill. This is what he said:
As I’ve said before, I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia of which my family and I are a part of for all of our lives. Our actions on HB 757 are not just about protecting the faith-based community or providing a business-friendly climate for job growth in Georgia. This is about the character of our State and the character of its people. Georgia is a welcoming state filled with warm, friendly and loving people. Our cities and countryside are populated with people who worship God in a myriad of ways and in very diverse settings. Our people work side-by-side without regard to the color of our skin, or the religion we adhere to. We are working to make life better for our families and our communities. That is the character of Georgia. I intend to do my part to keep it that way. For that reason, I will veto HB 757.
He tried to put a happy face on it, but the fact is that if not for the extraordinary pressure brought to bear by the cabal of activists, business and the federal government, the bill would have been signed without hesitation. Religious freedom is now held captive to progressive politics and corporate interests. This is the new America.
What makes Georgia especially interesting is the fact that everyone involved was Republican and most were Christian. Governor Deal himself is a conservative Southern Baptist. If anyone still thinks that if we can just elect enough people with conservative values we can reverse the tide of secularism and protect the place of biblical truth in American society, Georgia’s experience proves them wrong.
Where does all this leave the evangelical church? The religious freedoms we’ve enjoyed since America’s beginning are eroding and our place in the larger culture is no longer assured. But our place in the Kingdom is unchanged, and now more than ever we have to build authentic communities of faith that offer a clear hope to a broken world.