Lessons for both sides of RFRA in case of Newton County mosque

Residents attend a town hall meeting in Newton County to discuss plans to build a mosque and cemetery in the county on Monday in Covington. (AJC Photo / Curtis Compton)

Residents attend a town hall meeting in Newton County to discuss plans to build a mosque and cemetery in the county on Monday in Covington. (AJC Photo / Curtis Compton)

Plans for a mosque in Newton County — and some loudly negative reactions to those plans — pose some uncomfortable truths to people on both sides of Georgia’s religious-liberty debate.

For three years, legislators have considered incorporating the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act into state law. Each year’s bill has been different, and there have been other, more far-reaching aspects to some of them. But a common thread has been the “strict scrutiny” standard for cases involving free exercise, which bars “substantial” burdens on religious liberty absent a “compelling governmental interest.”

Proponents have warned religious liberty is eroding as the American populace becomes more secular. They insisted they weren’t trying to protect only Christianity. One of the most prominent backers of a state RFRA, Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, reiterated that in a Facebook post about the Newton County debate:

“When it comes to our individual freedoms in this country, either everybody counts or nobody counts,” McKoon wrote. “If you decide to let government have the power to decide who has a belief that should be protected and who has a belief unworthy of protection, you have signed the death warrant of a free society.”

That’s exactly right. But McKoon’s sentiment hasn’t been adopted by some other Georgians — check the comments to his post — many of whom, I’d wager, have supported his religious-liberty bills.

Some 300 people turned out Monday for a public hearing in Covington about a Doraville-based mosque’s plans to build a mosque, a cemetery and eventually a school on 135 acres in Newton County it bought last year. The majority of those at the meeting opposed the project.

But the mosque so far has submitted no plans and applied for no permits. The objectors apparently oppose any kind of plan by the mosque. I don’t know how any honest person can take that attitude if they support religious liberty.

But I do know that, if county commissioners bow to public pressure, county taxpayers will foot the legal bill. A federal law passed in 2000, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), clarifies that religious discrimination in zoning decisions is illegal. As other cities and counties have learned, RLUIPA trumps angry town-hall speakers.

Now we get to the part where those who oppose RFRA get to squirm.

Contrary to bluster about the First Amendment being sufficient, our laws and court cases over time have made it necessary to bolster specific aspects of religious freedom.

A mosque, or any other religious community, might well win a zoning dispute simply on First Amendment grounds. But the RLUIPA makes it a simpler, easier, more clear-cut issue, preventing religious discrimination before it happens.

That was precisely the intent of RFRA. From which, by the way, RLUIPA came.

The federal RFRA originally covered state and local governments as well. We would be better off, and have avoided some recent fights at the Gold Dome, had that remained the case. But the U.S. Supreme Court said Congress couldn’t do that. Congress passed RLUIPA as a result.

So while Muslims and other faith groups are protected from government discrimination in zoning decisions, without having to file an expensive civil suit, they aren’t so protected in other ways.

It’d be nice if everyone acknowledged both of those truths.

Reader Comments 0

86 comments
MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

The American "way of life" has always been the acceptance of immigrants into our borders from around the world.  The American Experiment has been unique in the history of humankind, as our Founding Fathers and Abraham Lincoln well realized.  The fact that it has been successful for 2 and 1/2 centuries is testimony that all people have more in common on this Earth than they have differences, if we look deeply enough. And, being in a safe environment which is accepting of all cultures and all religions (or no religion) is as American as one can get.

jerryeads
jerryeads

Really nicely done, Kyle. I wish yours and Jay's could have been together in print instead of a week apart. Bravo to the both of you.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

People will hold various opinions regarding the building of that Mosque.


However, I would remind everyone that Thomas Jefferson, one of the primarily intellectual and spiritual forces in the formation of our nation, left these instructions for his tombstone.  Notice that second in priority to Jefferson, after his writing of the Declaration of Independence, was his authorship of the Statue of Virginia for Religious Freedom.



"Before his death, Thomas Jefferson left explicit instructions regarding the monument to be erected over his grave.  In this document (undated), Jefferson supplied a sketch of the shape of the marker, and the epitaph with which he wanted it to be inscribed: '...on the faces of the Obelisk the following inscription, & not a word more:

Here was buried
Thomas Jefferson
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
& Father of the University of Virginia

'because by these,' he explained, 'as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered.' "


Also, at the top of Jefferson's Memorial in Washington DC are inscribed in stone these words of Jefferson:

 "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

SGTGrit
SGTGrit

Looks like Trump has the far-left stooges in a panic by reaching out to minorities and exposing the truth that Democrats only take their vote for granted, while doing nothing for them. That's the height of bigotry.

Hedley_Lammar
Hedley_Lammar

@SGTGrit Yes


We got the all over willies just thinking about how minorites are about to flock to Trump


You know. Because they love him too.

STHornet1990
STHornet1990

@SGTGrit Knowing the actual definition of bigotry would help your thought process.

SGTGrit
SGTGrit

@STHornet1990 @SGTGrit 

" a person who strongly and unfairly dislikes other people, ideas, etc. : a bigoted person; especially : a person who hates or refuses to accept the members of a particular group (such as a racial or religious group)"

Merriam-Webster

If the shoe fits wear it, so wear it.

Hedley_Lammar
Hedley_Lammar

 While I am not saying that Hillary has killed anyone, she does have a suspiciously high number of people, that are associated to her, have their lives cut mysteriously short.


You are EXACTLY the kind of voter Trump and the Breitbart  are looking for.

IReportYouWhine
IReportYouWhine

If a Democrat called someone a racist in the woods, would it make a sound?

IReportYouWhine
IReportYouWhine

Our first hurdle would be Trump actually saying something racist. Important point to keep in mind here, bigots like yourself, who look down upon the "uneducated," among others, don't get to define the meaning of the word "racist."

lvg
lvg

Nice to see the alt-right folks are alive and well in Newton County. Probably all worshipers of Breitbarf and Limbaugh

SGTGrit
SGTGrit

America is a Christian country founded on Judeo-Christian principals and yes there will be another revival in our country, probably very soon.

lvg
lvg

@SGTGrit Ah yes we get the white supremacy mantra based on Christianity . ST loves to wear his white sheet and hood when he goes out.

SGTGrit
SGTGrit

@lvg @SGTGrit 

Wrong as usual....many Blacks are Christian believers as are many Hispanics. A Black family that lives across the street from us has attended church with us. 

McGarnagle
McGarnagle

Isn't ironic that the same folks who push for Religious liberty Act are the same folks preventing the mosque from getting built. You would think they would lead by example and not use government to suppress religious liberty.

xxxzzz
xxxzzz

@McGarnagle How do you know that they are the same people?  Sounds more like the typical NIMBYs that oppose Christian churches in their neighborhood as well.

xxxzzz
xxxzzz

@DaltonbywayofBickley @xxxzzz @McGarnagle People oppose church expansions all the time.  Being Muslim may make it more strident, but many of these same people may have turned out.  And there is absolutely nothing in the article that supports your claim they would be complaining if a Christian Church was denied.  You've got your head so far in the sand you can't see your own prejudice.

Starik
Starik

@Hedley_Lammar @McGarnagle Ah yes, everybody (including Mr. Wingfield) supports the privileges of the One True Religion which happens to be theirs.

Hedley_Lammar
Hedley_Lammar

@McGarnagle They mean Religious liberty for THEM


Same crowd will tell you our laws are based on the bible.

Jefferson1776
Jefferson1776

Apples and oranges.  


Groups vs individuals.  


We don't need any new laws to let someone use religion to treat anyone different than the next person and use religion as an EXCUSE.


We have all the laws we need and a system to resolve differences.


Trump may need a new wedge issue since he is giving up on sending back the undocumented,  give him a ring. (or twit, I mean tweet)



Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@Jefferson1776 "We don't need any new laws to let someone use religion to treat anyone different than the next person and use religion as an EXCUSE."

And RFRA wouldn't do that, because it only restricts actions by the government. It doesn't apply to private-party disputes.

Hedley_Lammar
Hedley_Lammar

If the Muslims want to build a Mosque they should be allowed to do so.


There are no laws in the negative so I dont know why we need one to affirm they have this right.


Same goes for Jews, Buddhists, Christians or any other Religion


Anything else is just peoples bigotry coming out. Hell the Trump campaign is based on it.

IReportYouWhine
IReportYouWhine

I'm not sure about stupid, maybe hard to follow for those who have a lot of shallow thoughts.

It's tough to find any white power kooks these days, there's so few of them, but the rarities that I've had the displeasure of listening to, babble on about the purity of their race and blood. Kinda like how the college educated exclude those who didn't attend. Blissful ignorance is a trait they both share.

Anyway, Trump doesn't seem to be a member in good standing.

Caius
Caius

@IReportYouWhine Mrs Trump was born in Yugoslavia and that part of Yugoslavia is now Slovenia (really scenic country).

So Donald Trump's wife is an immigrant. What does that make their son, a Slovenian, as the judge in the Trump University federal case is a Mexican, per Donald Trump. I figured they were both American but what do I know next to U-Turn?

IReportYouWhine
IReportYouWhine

If little Barron should go and join the Slovenian chapter of La Raza, be sure to get back with me.

IReportYouWhine
IReportYouWhine

Hitler was also well known for murdering those who stood in the way of his rise to power. While I am not saying that Hillary has killed anyone, she does have a suspiciously high number of people, that are associated to her, have their lives cut mysteriously short. 170 or so at last count, I believe. How many people do you know who just dropped dead for no reason? I don't know any myself.

All those around Trump seem to live long, prosperous lives.

You should be more careful with your comparisons.

IReportYouWhine
IReportYouWhine

Trump has a Jewish son in law and his wife was born in Slovenia. I guess all you self proclaimed geniuses skipped out of school on the day they taught about racism.

Hedley_Lammar
Hedley_Lammar

@IReportYouWhine  Trump has a Jewish son in law


Hitler was part Jewish. You would know that if you went to school


Doesn't change a thing. 

xxxzzz
xxxzzz

@IReportYouWhine I don't believe the Clintons are murdering people, but the deaths are really bizarre.  Maybe its just that anyone who really likes and supports the Clintons has to be a little off their rocker in the first place and prone to suicides and accidents.

BetterDog
BetterDog

We are being bombarded daily with misinformation.  The Millennials have been dumbed down to not know fact from opinion.  All the so called news is opinion or narrative.  This has caused much confusion in our country.  Civics courses in high school taught what the Government can and should be doing.  Now it is sold as whatever it wants to do.  Not true.  You Millennials are smart.  Read history past the day you were born.  You will figure it out.  The history that you were not taught was done for a reason.  Your parents and grandparents knew what was great about this country.  You will soon figure it out.  You Millennials have been lied to and used.  But you can fix that.  You are smart enough to decide for yourselves. 

Hedley_Lammar
Hedley_Lammar

@BetterDog  Civics courses in high school taught what the Government can and should be doing.  Now it is sold as whatever it wants to do. 


Big strawman there.


Millennials are doing just fine with the truth. And they reject the ideas of the boomers who grew up in the " good old days " of segregation etc.

Caius
Caius

...a “compelling governmental interest.”

Interesting concept. Who gets to decide?  The majority? Do we not have a Bill of Rights to protect us against the tyranny of the majority? From that Bill of Rights: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;..."  Who gets to decide if there will be an exception?  Do you want "me" to decide?   I certainly don't want "you" to decide!


From that same Bill of Rights: ..."or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."  So we have people in Newton County peacefully assembling (as far as news reports say) and asking government "for a redress of grievances".


Who gets to decide?  Will it be no mosque there today, no synagogue here tomorrow and no tabernacle over there the next day?  Who gets to decide?  Caesar?



Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@Caius "Who gets to decide?"

The courts. That's the whole point of RFRA, to establish the balancing test for courts to use.

MarkVV
MarkVV

@Kyle_Wingfield @Caius Courts have to decide, but the reality is that there is no clear guidance in the RFRA how to decide. That law is as flexible as anybody wants to make it.

The government interest is compelling when it is more than routine.” What does that mean? What is the yardstick of routineness? “The rule must be the least restrictive way in which to further the government interest.” Again, people can argue until the cows come home about what is more and what is less restrictive.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@MarkVV I dare say there's no "clear guidance" on "how to decide" in any balancing test. The point is to show where the burden lies -- in this case, on the government to prove its action either isn't a substantial burden or is justified by a compelling interest. As always, it's up to the judges to decide where the weight of the facts lies.

Caius
Caius

@Kyle_Wingfield @Caius Caius - "Who gets to decide?"

Kyle - "The courts. That's the whole point of RFRA, to establish the balancing test for courts to use."

Correct, the courts. And the courts are part of the government.

The failure is that "we the people" refuse to settle the matter ourselves. We the people speak through our legislature and we so tie the hands of the legislature that some issues do not get resolved. So in steps the court to decide for us.


MarkVV
MarkVV

@Kyle_Wingfield @MarkVV One more time: The problem is that the criteria for that decision are far from clear. Therefore, yes, it is left up to the judges, who will decide according to their individual prejudices, rather than giving them a legal blueprint to follow.