When critics of Georgia’s proposed religious-liberty bill get to scare-mongering, they have a tendency to promote it as a kind of final word, as if people of faith could start breaking existing laws, claim “religious liberty!” and that would be that. In fact, the bill — like the federal law on which it is based, and with which we have much experience — merely tells courts which legal standard to employ in judging religious challenges to state and local government actions. It sets a high bar for government to clear, no doubt, but it’s a bar government has cleared many times, including all past examples of the types of cases critics have evoked during the current debate. It is a far cry from the “license to (fill in the blank)” opponents portray.
It’s one thing when people of no legal background make such claims about the bill. But it’s rather curious when people who work in the legal profession do so.
So last month when Macon’s district attorney, David Cooke, wrote an op-ed in which he claimed the bill “could allow a person to ignore Georgia’s child welfare laws by claiming ‘deeply held religious beliefs,'” it made me wonder. Not least because Cooke included in his op-ed two examples of people in Georgia who have already committed the kind of abuse in the name of religion he claimed this bill would give rise to. Those people were convicted of their crimes, and there is no doubt that preventing child and spousal abuse would remain a “compelling government interest” under the new law, and that prohibiting abuse is the “least restrictive way” of meeting that interest. In a third case Cooke mentioned, about a witness in a Utah child-labor case whose refusal to testify on religious grounds was upheld by a judge, Cooke failed to mention that the judge went along with the refusal expressly because there was a less-restrictive way to get the same information: having other witnesses testify. That case is still proceeding.
I did not find it terribly surprising, then, that there are links between Cooke and the left-wing outfit, Better Georgia, that about a week after his op-ed appeared placed newspaper advertisements opposing the bill based in large part on his thoughts.
A Better Georgia employee, Louis Elrod, managed Cooke’s successful 2012 campaign for the DA job. Better Georgia mentions this on its website, and filings with the state ethics commission confirm as much.
In 2013, other ethics filings show, Cooke’s campaign paid Better Georgia $250 for a “sponsorship” and another $500 for event tickets.
Better Georgia is — how to put it politely? — not known for its fealty to truth when leveling its attacks. (See here for an example of a “pants on fire” falsehood the group repeated during its fund-raising.)
Claims the bill would legalize discrimination don’t stand up to the historical record of similar religious-liberty bills on the federal level and in a majority of other states. The notion this bill would provide legal cover for child and spousal abuse is similarly baseless. It looks an awful lot like fodder for a group desperately seeking an actual justification for opposing the bill.