Rabbi Peter S. Berg's Testimony About Georgia's SB 29

Thank you.  I am Rabbi Peter Berg, Senior Rabbi of The Temple, Atlanta’s oldest and Georgia’s largest Jewish congregation. 

Let me begin by stating, unequivocally, that I am a staunch supporter of Religious Freedom. My grandparents came to America to escape religious persecution in Germany and Russia with the expectation that their faiths, rights, and lives would be protected in America.

I am opposed to HB 29 precisely because religious freedom is, for me, as a rabbi, the most important freedom guaranteed to us by our Constitution. And religious freedom is already protected by the Constitutions of the United States and Georgia. And, these protections have stood the test of time. This bill, if enacted, would give us the right to harm others and to do so in the name of religion. 

 I am here today because I believe this bill is a divisive measure, and divisiveness is not what Georgia needs right now. One of the central tenets of Torah is to treat others fairly, to treat our neighbors as we ourselves would want to be treated. But, this bill could have a broad range of harmful consequences, from discrimination against gays and lesbians in Georgia to individuals claiming a religious right to ignore our laws. If enacted, one could claim an exemption from a child labor law investigation or deny counseling to a gay person. 

That is not religious freedom it is discrimination.  Plain and simple.

I also want to be clear that I am a strong supporter of federal RFRA and I even helped to get that legislation passed in 1993. This was a huge priority for the Jewish community and I am proud of that work. But, HB 29 is no federal RFRA. I want to caution our elected leaders against tinkering with the timeless concept of religious freedom, especially when there is no evidence that our religious rights are currently being compromised. Religious leaders of all denominations fear that HB 29 may have unintended consequences that tip the careful balance we have achieved between secular laws and religious practices.

 We must ensure that Americans are not harmed, intentionally or otherwise, in the rush to enact new protections for religious beliefs. I understand that from time to time differences in religious beliefs and public policy arise that need to be reviewed in the courts, but those issues should be guided by the protections guaranteed by our Constitution. And in the few instances when it is necessary to clarify how those differences are resolved, we must err on the side of protecting the rights of all, rather than accommodating the fears of the few.

Let us also be clear today that the faith community did not ask for this bill and that the faith community does not want this bill. We of faith certainly have our differences. We worship on different days, have different sacred texts, and different theologies, but we are united in our belief that what we want our legislators in Georgia to do this year is to work together to address issues like juvenile justice and education, both of which have involved successful bipartisan solutions in Georgia.

 Rather than attempting to legislate solutions to our conflicts and differences with HB 29, we should focus our efforts on unifying causes such as these. Let us reason together as scripture calls us to do. In doing so we might find ourselves united across all divides to address the real problems facing Georgia.