Commentary: The Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects religious freedoms without discrimination


On Thursday afternoon, Feb. 22, SB 180, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 6 to 3 vote. It now goes to the Rules Committee to be considered for a vote by Thursday, Feb. 29, on Crossover Day.   

Sen. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth), along with more than 20 other senators, introduced SB 180, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act during the 2023 legislative session.  This bill is important because it provides people of faith the same protections from state and local government actions that they now have from federal government actions.

This legislation is very simple – it merely provides that the RFRA protections from federal law will also apply to religious-liberty questions arising under Georgia law.

Click here for a short video explaining RFRA:

Enactment of SB 180 will bring Georgia into line with at least 34 other states that have taken action to restore a full level of legal protection for people of faith.  Under current Georgia law, freedom of religion has a weak level of legal protection:

Under current federal RFRA law, a claim brought under the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment is treated as a full constitutional right which must be analyzed using the “strict scrutiny” legal standard.  This legal standard simply means that the government may not substantially impact a citizen’s free exercise of their religious faith unless it demonstrates a truly “compelling interest” and that in doing so the government agency uses the “least restrictive means” to achieve its compelling interest.

In 1997, the US Supreme ruled that the Federal RFRA legislative content had to be enacted on a state-by-state level to be effective. Apart from that requirement, the RFRA would have been seen as federalism and this is not legal.

A RFRA produces a proper balancing test between the rights of citizens to believe and practice their First Amendment rights, while at the same time allowing the government to carry out its responsibility to govern its citizens’ actions. 

When former Sen. Josh McKoon first introduced this kind of legislation back in 2014, he asked for any incidents to be reported to him of where a state RFRA had caused any invidious discrimination. Between 2014 and 2016, not one situation was reported to him. He had committed to donating $1000 to the charity of someone’s choice if a situation could be demonstrated where discrimination was caused by RFRA. 

While many opposing this legislation accuse the RFRA of being discriminatory, it is simply not true. This legislation is not about causing any discrimination. A RFRA protects people of faith from government intrusion and being forced to violate their First Amendment right of conscience. It restores the original intent of what the First Amendment in the US Constitution is all about.

It also restores to people of faith the same high standard of rights as seen, for example in freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. See the Georgia Baptist Convention’s Resolution on Protecting Religious Liberty approved in 2014:

President Bill Clinton, who signed the federal RFRA law in 1993, put it this way, “But let us never believe that the freedom of religion imposes on any of us some responsibility to run from our convictions. Let us instead respect one another’s faiths, fight to the death to preserve the right of every American to practice whatever convictions he or she has but bring our values back to the table of American discourse to heal our troubled land.”

Here is a good example of the intentions of RFRA. The Hobby Lobby case, in which the US Supreme Court held that Christian business owners could not be required by the federal government to pay for their employees’ abortion-inducing drugs was decided under the federal RFRA law. Sen. Setzler’s SB 180 would merely apply this same legal analysis to cases arising under state and local law in Georgia.

We can be thankful for Sen. Setzler, for leading the way in guaranteeing that Georgians will have the same basic rights the federal RFRA provides to prisoners and soldiers on military bases. (See the map of federal RFRA/RLUPA protections in Georgia.)

Please continue praying intentionally and contacting your state senator now to urge him or her to vote in favor of RFRA when it comes to the floor of the Senate for a vote.

Find your senator’s contact info here.


Mike Griffin is the Public Affairs Representative of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board.