The race for Governor of Georgia, pitting current Georgia Secretary of State, Republican Brian Kemp, against Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams, has become one of the nation’s most widely covered races, with media focusing on several interconnected issues:
- Race and Gender: Abrams would not only become the first African American or woman to be elected governor of Georgia, but would be the first black female governor in the history of the United States. Her campaign has inspired Oprah Winfrey, the most powerful black woman in the United States, to stump on her behalf, while President Trump recently headlined a campaign rally for Kemp.
- Racism: white supremacist Scott Rhodes (who I almost hope is a relative, only so I could tell him off [or just see his reaction to being in the same family] at the next family reunion) has been implementing racist robocalls against Abrams and Winfrey. Winfrey’s response: “Jesus don’t like ugly. Mm-uhh. And we know what to do about that: vote.”
- Voter Suppression: As Secretary of State, Kemp has been using Georgia’s controversial “exact match” voter ID law to disqualify over 50,000 voters, most of whom are African-American and likely Abrams supporters. Despite the apparent conflict of interest and demonstrable racial disparity of Kemp’s application of this law, the Secretary of State/Republican candidate refuses to back down, leading the courts to intervene against enforcing the stringent ID requirement. The 50,000 voters affected by the exact match law are just a small portion of the 1.4 million voter registrations that Kemp’s office has cancelled since 2012.
- Election System Hacking: Kemp’s office has further accused the Democratic Party, without presenting evidence, of attempting to hack Georgia’s voter registration system. Abrams and other Democrats argue this is another voter suppression tactic aimed against Democrats in this close race. Kemp made similar hacking allegations against the Department of Homeland Security in 2016, only to be proven wrong.
- Flag-Burning and Freedom of Speech: Abrams, meanwhile, endured controversy when it was revealed that she participated in a 1992 protest against the then-state flag of Georgia, which prominently featured the Confederate battle flag, at which the Georgia flag was burned. Although Abrams did not directly participate in the burning and claims to have had no prior knowledge that such an act would take place, the incident resonates with some voters in light of recent violence and protests concerning Confederate monuments and the controversy surrounding NFL national anthem protests and the American flag.
In the midst of all these controversies, an issue that has somewhat been lost in the shuffle, but which reflects a larger debate going on throughout the country, concerns the candidates’ views on Georgia’s version of a Religious Freedom Law. Like many states, the Georgia legislature in 2016 passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but then Governor Nathan Deal vetoed the legislation. Kemp has pledged to approve a version of the law if he is elected, while Abrams is thoroughly opposed to it. In Georgia and other states, religious freedom laws have become part of a larger struggle between conservative and progressive forces over religious liberty and LGBTQ rights, and a fundamental clash over the nation’s culture and values.
The various Religious Freedom Restoration Acts enacted throughout the United States are modeled after a federal law passed in 1993 that was meant to provide strong protections for religious freedom – think of them as boosts to the First Amendment. Since the US Supreme Court ruled that the federal RFRA could not be applied to the states, 21 state-level RFRAs have been enacted, (including in Indiana, where then-Governor Mike Pence championed such a law).
Although the initial case that led to the federal RFRA was focused on protecting minority religious practices (such as Native Americans’ right to use the hallucinogenic drug peyote for religious ceremonies), more recent RFRAs have been in practice aimed at shielding conservative Christians from laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or sexual identity; about twenty states have laws to protect against gender or sexual orientation-based discrimination. Religious freedom laws, such as the one being debated in Georgia, are largely aimed at allowing those with religious objections (generally Christians, but not necessarily) to opt out of things such as providing certain services to LGBTQ individuals, as well as fulfilling legal requirements related to things such as abortion or birth control.
The passage of Religious Freedom Restoration Acts is part of a larger GOP strategy to appeal to religious freedom – a cornerstone of American democracy – against progressive attempts to expand protections and rights for women and minorities in ways that seem threatening to many conservatives. As I have mentioned before, this strategy is multi-pronged, including not only RFRA laws and various court cases, but also rhetoric ranging from blaming mass shootings and racist hate crimes on “anti-religiosity” to decrying secularization and a “War on Christmas.” Today’s election in Georgia, in addition to the other potentially historic implications for that state and for the country, is also one battle among many in what has been framed as a conflict between competing rights and liberties and the social direction of the country.