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Local Muslims Skeptical of Religious Freedom Bill

Local Muslims Skeptical of Religious Freedom Bill

Author Edward Mitchell by

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Photo: Aisha Yaqoob

Concern. Fear. Skepticism.

Those are some of the sentiments Georgia Muslims are expressing about the Religious Freedom bill that passed the State Senate last week by a vote of 35-17. Numerous advocacy organizations in Georgia, particularly gay rights groups, oppose the bill, which would forbid the government from burdening a person’s religious practice without a compelling interest in doing so.

But local Muslims have been relatively quiet about the proposed legislation.

“As Muslims, we have to be cognizant of the various implications of any new legislation that purports to promote "religious freedom," said attorney M. Khurram Baig, who leads the Georgia State Bar Association of Muslim Lawyers. 

“The U.S. Constitution along with key statutes and innumerable lines of case law more than adequately protect religious freedom in America. In fact, religious freedom may be one of the most protected individual rights that we have as a nation.  So that begs the question, what is the actual purpose of these types of so called ‘Religious Freedom’ bills?”

The Georgia bill is one of a dozen similar laws proposed across the American South in the wake of legal disputes about whether Christian wedding planners could legally refuse to serve gay weddings based on their religious objections to homosexuality.

Gay rights advocacy organizations like the Human Rights Campaign decry that scenario as unconstitutionally discriminatory. Furthermore, the HRC argues, bills that would enshrine a legal right to make such decisions could negatively affect other minority groups.

“In practice, most of these bills could empower any individual to sue the government to attempt to end enforcement of a non-discrimination law,” the Human Rights Campaign said in a policy paper. “The evangelical owner of a business providing a secular service can sue claiming that their personal faith empowers them to refuse to hire Jews, divorcees, or LGBT people. A landlord could claim the right to refuse to rent an apartment to a Muslim or a transgender person.”

Supporters dismiss such claims as hyperbole.

“This law has never been used to discriminate,” tweeted State Senator Josh McKoon, the bill’s sponsor. The Republican argues that the bill would instead defend religious Georgians from discrimination. He pointed to examples of such anti-religious discrimination, including alleged zoning restrictions on churches as well as limitations on Christian speech such as an after-school Bible class and church recitals, all in Georgia.

The Georgia Chapter of the Council for American-Islamic Relations does not have a formal position on the bill, but its president personally opposes the legislation.

“I feel that there are enough laws protecting religious freedom and that this bill would allow people to discriminate against others based on their religious beliefs,” said Yusof Burke. “There is a potential for Muslims to be refused service by those who are hostile to Muslims and Islam.”

Indeed, that is exactly what other critics of the bill fear.

“Given the recent social climate and the timing of these bills, it seems logical to conclude that the Bills have ulterior designs,” attorney Baig said. “The bills could be read and applied in such a way as to potentially empower individuals or entities to claim religious expression as justification or defense to otherwise discriminatory acts.” 

The bill could also cut the other way, allowing Muslims to wrongly discriminate against non-Muslims.

“It may also lead…Muslims to refuse service due to cultural practices that are confused with religious practices,” Burke said. “There have been reports in different parts of the country where Muslim taxi cab drivers refused service to people with guide dogs and with Muslims in the spotlight these days incidents like this have a negative effect on all of us.”

The bill now heads to the House for consideration.

Edward Mitchell is an attorney based in Atlanta who serves as News Editor of Follow him on Twitter @edmovie.

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