State Senate Passes Controversial Religious Freedom Bill

Dave Williams

Monday, March 4th, 2024

Capitol Beat is a nonprofit news service operated by the Georgia Press Educational Foundation that provides coverage of state government to newspapers throughout Georgia. For more information visit

The state Senate’s Republican majority passed a religious freedom bill Thursday, resurrecting an issue that roiled the General Assembly eight years ago.

Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which passed 33-19 along party lines, the state and local governments would not be permitted to “substantially burden” an individual’s free exercise of religion unless the government could demonstrate it had a “compelling governmental interest” in doing so and that it was using the “least restrictive means” of intrusion.

Senate Bill 180 is aimed at protecting religious minorities from government intrusion through a “balancing test,” Sen. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, the bill’s chief sponsor, said on the Senate floor shortly before Thursday’s vote.

“It simply provides a tool to weigh the legitimate interests government has against people’s religious rights,” Setzler said. “We’re not trying to take anything from anybody.”

But the bill’s Democratic opponents said the measure could be used to discriminate against LGBTQ Georgians under the guise of religious freedom.

Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, said passing the bill could hurt the state economically.

“We are telling LGBTQ Georgians and their families to leave our state and take their dollars elsewhere,” Butler said.

The General Assembly passed a RFRA bill in 2016 over objections from business organizations worried by threats from organizers of conventions and sporting events to boycott Georgia if the legislation became law.

But then-Republican Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed the measure after a storm of protest from civil rights groups that it threatened the rights of the state’s LGBTQ community.

Setzler said his bill is similar to a bipartisan federal RFRA law Congress passed back in 1993, a far different version than the legislation Deal vetoed.

Georgia lawmakers need to act because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the protections the federal law provided extended only to intrusions by the federal government, not by states or local governments, Setzler said.

The legislation now heads to the Georgia House of Representatives.