The issue of religious liberty is a sticky one in Georgia, but at least one group has gotten mostly unstuck: the eight candidates for the District 6 seat in the Georgia Senate.

With the exception of Republican Leo Smith, who previously served as the party’s minority outreach director, all said they would be against a religious liberty bill similar to the one vetoed by Gov. Nathan Deal earlier this year. The bill would have allowed faith-based organizations and churches to refuse to serve or hire someone if doing so would have conflicted with their religious beliefs. Supporters said it would protect Georgia’s people of faith, but critics said it would have allowed legal discrimination against LGBT people.

Though the candidates mostly agreed that the bill was not necessary, they came to their conclusions from different angles. They spoke at a forum organized by the Vinings Village Civic Club on Monday night.

Democrats like Taos Wynn, who runs a nonprofit, largely said the bill was discriminatory.

“Holding true to my values, I can honestly say at no point in time would I feel comfortable supporting legislation that emphasizes discrimination toward anybody,” Wynn said. “I’m not for it, and I think everyone is entitled to the same human rights.”

Democratic Dentist Jaha Howard agreed. He said he is a Christian but does not understand why some of his faith seem to want to persecute others. He also said the bill would keep businesses from investing in Georgia.

“I do not understand this expression of Christianity that we see sometimes in our state,” he said. “I don’t understand it … It’s unnecessary, and it’s hurtful. But it’s bad for business, if the bottom line is what matters to you … At the end of the day, it’s something that makes someone seem religious so they can get in front of their peers and seem like they’re with them.”

Attorney Jen Jordan, a Democrat, agreed with Howard, and said the bill is redundant.

“We have something that does that. It’s called the United States Constitution,” she said. “That’s enough. What RFRA does, is it’s a wedge issue that divides us. At the end of the day, what it’s done is just prevent businesses from coming into this state and from giving good jobs to Georgians. It makes no sense in terms of legislation.”

Republican Leo Smith said the religious liberty bill would actually fight against discrimination.

“Certainly, any discriminatory legislation is not worth supporting, including legislation that discriminates against people of faith,” Smith said. “People who hold certain habits, if they work at a halal butcher, he has a certain way that they do their business. If it relates to their faith and it doesn’t discriminate, we should support that legislation.”

The other Republicans saw things differently.

Republican businessman Charlie Fiveash said he agrees that the First Amendment provides ample protections to the faithful, and that he agrees with Gov. Deal’s decision.

“Just ask our friends in North Carolina how some of those issues and bills worked out for them,” Fiveash said. “That may be a pro-business response, but one reason … I decided to run is after this last election, I woke up and said ‘We need inclusion. We need to bring this country together.’ So that’s why I stand against this bill.”

Republican businesswoman Kathy Eichenblatt echoed the previous arguments and characterized the issue as a distraction.

“I feel as though Georgia as a state is a welcoming state,” she said. “I support Gov. Deal. He said at this juncture no one has been discriminated against yet, why are we drawing up legislation against something that might happen? ... This is a piece of legislation that causes division, and I think takes some of our eyes off the ball on pressing issues for us.”

Republican businesswoman Leah Aldridge agreed.

“This has really created a wedge between people in Georgia,” she said. “A wedge between my party and business, a wedge between people of faith and those who are not of faith, a wedge between Democrats and Republicans ... We haven’t gotten down to the business of lowering taxes, of fixing health care, of promoting small businesses, of getting us out of our gridlock, and yes, of fixing some of our failing schools.”

Republican Attorney Matt Bentley said he is a firm Christian, but he believes now is not the time for a religious liberty bill.

“I do believe that it is unwise at this point in time to spend tax dollars on this bill,” Bentley said. “And the reason is simple. We have a Republican Congress. We have a Republican president. We have Jeff Sessions, who just recently, about two days ago, issued guidelines to protect religious liberties … When the time comes, I will personally author the bill, but it is not now.”

The seat was held by former state Sen. Hunter Hill, R-Smyrna, who resigned in August to run for governor in 2018. A special election to fill his seat is set for Nov. 7.


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