Opinion: How to ensure dignity and respect for all Georgians

Every day, we’re all called to live out our values in action. But what does that actually look like, particularly in today’s increasingly charged atmosphere? It’s easy to talk about respecting others and valuing the inherent dignity of our fellow neighbors – even those with whom we disagree. But the Golden Rule – that universal principle that transcends so many of our faiths – must be more than a passive talking point. Treating others as we ourselves wish to be treated is an active choice that we make – and sometimes, that means speaking out when we see injustices occurring.

As faith leaders in our respective communities, we feel compelled to speak out now because we are dismayed that some of our state’s elected officials seem to be falling into an increasingly familiar annual tradition: pit Georgians against one another. Foster animosity of those who are different than us. Create false equivalencies that imply freedom of religion and equal treatment for all Georgians are two foreign concepts, which cannot coexist together.

This time, we are speaking out in opposition to SB 375 – unnecessary legislation which would allow child welfare and adoption agencies to refuse to work with some couples who seek to open their hearts and their homes to children in need. The intent of the bill is clear: It allows taxpayer-funded agencies not only to turn away same-sex couples looking to adopt, but even could give those same agencies a free pass to refuse services to kids in need who identify as LGBT. All of this is in the name, apparently, of religious freedom.

It’s a proposal we’ve seen in varying forms for at least the past four years here in Georgia. Year after year, lawmakers float various incarnations of so-called religious freedom bills that, curiously enough, many of us in Georgia’s religious communities have never supported or even asked for in the first place.

This year, enough is enough.

Freedom of religion is one of our most cherished values – and that’s why it’s enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. But that freedom does not give anyone the right to harm others, or take away the rights of others. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what the unnecessary SB 375 does. This legislation could allow a taxpayer-funded agency to turn away qualified potential parents – including those who could be considered a member of the “wrong” religion, or those who are in loving and committed same-sex marriages. Perhaps even worse, it jeopardizes the safety and well-being of children across the state by allowing these same agencies to turn away kids in need – kids who could identify as LGBTQ; kids who don’t share the religious beliefs of certain providers; kids who require mental health services that a particular agency may disagree with.

Once again – for yet another year – some lawmakers are intent on creating false divides. Once again, we are presented with a false choice: Protect the rights and freedoms of some at the expense of others.

We reject this false choice. We urge our lawmakers to pause and consider what living their values – living the Golden Rule – truly looks like. Rather than waste yet another year in a protracted battle over the lack of any real need for so-called religious freedom measures, we should be talking about what we can do to protect all Georgians from discrimination – people of faith and LGBT people alike.

Our state has some of the most antiquated civil rights laws in the country. We must change that. This is a conversation that we believe will finally put an end to the annual parade of acrimony and controversy that has slowed down real legislative work and damaged our state’s image. It’s a conversation that would ensure Georgians are reminded of all that unites us – as opposed to being conditioned to only see differences.

We believe this discussion is the best path forward. We don’t need additional, unnecessary bills – but we do need our leaders to set an example for what it looks like to live by the Golden Rule. SB 375 stands to hurt the approximately 14,000 children currently in our state’s welfare and adoption system. Surely that is too high a price to pay for political pageantry. People of faith are tired of this annual charade, and we are ready to lead this next chapter of a dialogue that we know is long overdue in Georgia.