Jane Robbins is a Harvard educated attorney and a senior fellow with the American Principles Project Foundation, based out of Georgia. Robbins has modeled federal and state legislation designed to restore the constitutional autonomy of states and parents in education policy, and to protect the rights of religious freedom and conscience. These are the views of the author and not necessarily those of AllOnGeorgia.
Having dodged the Amazon bullet, Georgians can look back and reconsider the arguments made during the frantic pursuit of billionaire Jeff Bezos and his second headquarters (HQ2). The argument that stands out for conservatives was the one repeated like a mantra: We don’t dare pass religious-liberty legislation, because if we do, Bezos won’t like us and will take his HQ2 elsewhere. That argument has now dissolved into the ether.
For years now, Georgians of faith have urged their legislators to enact religious-liberty protections already present in over 30 other states. The legislature did so a few years ago but Governor Deal vetoed the bill (in a nice bit of timing, on Easter Monday). Deal has made it clear by his actions, if not always his words, that he simply isn’t interested in protecting religious liberty. At times he seems genuinely puzzled about why this would matter to anyone.
Anyway, since the veto, religious-liberty proponents have asked only for a state Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) which tracks the language of the quarter-century-old federal RFRA. RFRA is a modest bill that merely requires the government to meet a high standard of proof in court before it can substantially burden a citizen’s free exercise of religion. Supporters of RFRA protections included right-wing radicals such as Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, and Barack Obama. (Because the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the federal RFRA applies only to actions by the federal government, state-level RFRAs are necessary to protect citizens from state and local governments.)
Georgia state Senator Marty Harbin (R-Tyrone) introduced a state-level RFRA during the last legislature. But Deal and company shut down any serious debate on the bill because of the effect it supposedly would have on the delicate Amazon negotiations. The Governor warned of “repercussions” if “certain issues” are not dealt with “in a very delicate fashion.” Translation: The 50,000 jobs connected to the Amazon bid – and the bragging rights for supplicant politicians – are much more important than the civil liberties of Georgia citizens. A RFRA would drive away Amazon, so a RFRA must never see the light of day in Georgia.
The issue was prominent in the gubernatorial race as well. Deal enforcer Chris Riley fretted over the Republican candidates’ willingness to support RFRA: “We will continue to work with [the GOP] campaigns and ask them to remember when they speak those headlines go as quick and far as the [Amazon] CEO’s desk. If I told you [corporate leaders] weren’t paying attention, I’d be fibbing.”
Deal and Riley found compatible bedfellows in the more radical Democrats now ascendant in Georgia. Before her days as a plaintiff seeking to overturn election results, Stacey Abrams warned against “horrible legislation” like RFRA, which “would restore and legalize discrimination in the state of Georgia. We know that has a chilling effect on business and a chilling effect on the economy.” And we know how socialists value business and the economy.
But that was then. Last week Amazon announced it will split its HQ2 between two locations – one in northern Virginia, and one in New York – and will place an operations center in Tennessee. And of course, the kicker: Virginia and Tennessee both have RFRAs.
It’s almost as if mega-corporations base multi-billion-dollar decisions on economic factors rather than on whether Christian student organizations are allowed meet in the gym. Who knew?
But this is the mindset of the people in charge of “economic development” in Georgia: “we will do anything – and we do mean anything – to bribe companies to come here.” A glance through Georgia’s official bid, sealed from public view in part to prevent taxpayer backlash, shows how pathetic their conduct was (Riley described it as “aggressive”).
To get Amazon these officials promised not only $2 billion in tax credits but also taxpayer-funded training for Amazon employees, an Amazon-dedicated car on MARTA, an Amazon lounge and free parking at the airport, and potential re-naming of Atlanta streets to, for example, Alexa Way and Prime Place. In other words, Georgia’s package wasn’t substantially different from those presented in blistering comedy routines.
This is reminiscent of Rhett’s response to Scarlett when she offered herself as his mistress if he would pay the taxes on Tara, only to learn that he didn’t have the money: “My dear, it seems you have abased yourself to no purpose.” One wonders if Georgia’s economic gurus are self-aware enough to be embarrassed.
On the other hand, maybe we can use some of these ideas going forward. “RFRA Road,” perhaps?