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By Andre Jackson
If, as the old saying goes, character is what you do when no one’s watching, then leadership can likewise be viewed as what you do when everyone’s looking.
Seen that way, Gov. Nathan Deal showed admirable leadership late last week when he jumped into the divisive dust-up over religious liberty legislation in Georgia. Good for him.
Given Deal’s normally cautious, low-key public style of governing, his comments about the controversial legislation were profoundly surprising. In our view, his measured-yet-passionate words add another powerful, pragmatic voice to what’s been an electric, divisive and emotional debate. If Deal’s viewpoint – and powers of office, if need be — can help keep Georgia’s reputation and economy intact, then he will have served this state well.
That this situation is grave enough to compel Deal to take a gutsy stance should, taken alone, give pause to those scrambling to ramrod religious liberty law through the Georgia General Assembly. At essence, the governor’s saying, “this is serious folks,” and that the current scrambling goes far beyond the expected political vaudeville of an election year.
The lawyer Deal nicely summed up things after being asked a question Thursday by an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter.
“I know that there are a lot of Georgians who feel like this is a necessary step for us to take,” said Deal. “I would hope that … we can keep in mind the concerns of the faith-based community, which I believe can be protected without setting up the situation where we could be accused of allowing or encouraging discrimination.”
Great advice that. Under no circumstances should Georgia pass a law so widely seen as harboring discriminatory intent or potential. We should know better.
Worse, making the wrong call on religious liberty could shred parts of Georgia’s economy. Businesses and workers are likely to leave this state — or avoid it — if legislation passes that’s widely seen as discriminating against gays or others.
That destructive prospect should be an attention-getter in a state that proudly points at every opportunity to its ranking as the best place in which to do business. We burn such goodwill – and the jobs and prosperity it attracts – at our peril.
Yet that line of argument’s been wrestled onto its head as otherwise-rock-ribbed conservatives contend that the business community seeks only to protect commerce — at the expense of trampling freedom of religion that’s been part of the U.S. Constitution since 1791.
We’d agree that religious leaders shouldn’t be forced to officiate at same-sex marriages that violate their beliefs. That’s where the Constitution’s protections come in. Thereafter, things quickly get grayer and murkier. Many believe religious liberty legislation carries a heavy potential dose of unintended — or intentional — consequences. Could such laws apply to divorcees, unmarried heterosexual couples, other people of faith, or people of color?
The courts would assuredly sort out all of that. The danger is that, while judges deliberate, portions of Georgia’s economy could go up in flames.
Deal brought to the debate his own religious justification, one that has merit, in our view. He made a passionate case for finding a path that secures both civil rights and freedom of religion by recounting the New Testament encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well:
“What that says is we have a belief in forgiveness and that we do not have to discriminate unduly against anyone on the basis of our own religious beliefs. We are not, in my opinion, put in jeopardy by virtue of those who might hold different beliefs or who may not even agree with what our Supreme Court said the law of the land is on the issue of same-sex marriage. I do not feel threatened by the fact that people who might choose same-sex marriages pursue that route.”
Deal’s point meshes nicely with one made in the biblical book of Matthew: “Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
This is the first and great commandment.
And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Remembering that, and Deal’s words, should help Georgia navigate the risky, tricky path of bridging secular and religious divides as democracy demands of us.SHARE THIS STORY