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Charlie Harper: Faith, freedom and Holy Week

This Sunday I'll return to the country church where I grew up for Easter sunrise services. It's the place where I learned about the wisdom of King Solomon, the courage of King David, and unconditional love as taught by Jesus Christ.

Friday begins the week of Passover, and will also mark Good Friday, the day that Christians understand that despite that love, we are -- individually and collectively -- people who make unwise and sinful decisions. And yet, we are people who believe in forgiveness and redemption.

These are graces granted to us from a power much greater than ourselves. It is a power granted from a Lord who gave us a son who rejected a kingdom here on earth. One who drove the moneychangers from the temple. One who showed love and compassion for the woman at the well and for a corrupt tax collector, but rebuked the Pharisees and others who would use their wealth or positions of power to place themselves above their neighbors.

This is the last week of the Georgia General Assembly's annual 40-day session. The juxtaposition of the end of activity at the Capitol -- with legislators expected to finish their business late Thursday night -- and the beginning of Easter weekend and Passover week will likely not be lost on many. Much of the public debate on the final actions of the legislative bodies will be on whether the state passes a bill on religious freedom.

The debate over whether Georgia should become the 32nd state to protect individual religious observation from excessive government intrusion has been consumed by over-the-top rhetoric and false claims made from both supporters and opponents. The bill's sponsors have been accused of everything from condoning child and spousal abuse to attempting to embolden the KKK. And those who tried to make non-discrimination explicit in the bill were compared to Judas Iscariot.

I've talked with both Rep. Sam Teasley and Sen. Josh McKoon on multiple occasions about their bills. I believe their motivations are good, and their intentions noble. I also believe that moneychangers in the temple have stolen their cause, inflamed the rhetoric, and made their jobs much more difficult. Christianity is a religion of peace and love. Those who have decided to weaponize it for personal and political gain cheapen the message they proclaim to be trying to protect.

Equally worthy of derision are the many seeking to squelch any further public protections for religious practices under the theme of equality. Equality doesn't begin when one side gets what it wants and the other must conform its practices and beliefs to whatever remains. For tolerance to mean anything other than an empty slogan, it must be recognized, and observed, as a two-way street.

In an attempt to claim the moral high ground, both supporters and opponents have instead ceded it. Public discourse has been set back as much as the causes of each.

Caught in the middle are Georgia's business interests and Chambers of Commerce. Last year some larger corporations reacted to Arizona's attempt to expand an already existing RFRA law into areas well outside the scope of the federal companion law by opposing Georgia's proposals. Others, however, have remained helpful and constructive partners in an attempt to find a common ground solution without prejudging the bill or projecting others' language upon it.

The problem with businesses being stuck in the middle is that they are essentially being asked, like King Solomon, to publicly split this baby. There is no upside for members of the business community being perceived as either anti-religious or anti-gay.

Businesses, by their nature, wish to maximize sales and profits, which means selling to all customers. Being drawn into the middle of this debate only ensures that if common ground cannot be found, they stand to lose business from someone. Those screaming the loudest on each side do not have to share these concerns. They stand to profit regardless who loses.

I believe that our country was founded on the fundamental basis that we are all free to practice our religion in the way each of us sees fit. This extends to all religions -- not merely to Christians and not merely to those with Judeo-Christian beliefs. For this freedom to truly matter - in order for each of us who claim Christianity as our own faith to matter -- this must also apply to those who choose to practice no religion.

My church teaches me that the yoke of government may occasionally interfere in my life - and when it does I am to carry the pack two miles, not one. It teaches me that I am to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and that is separate from what belongs to the Lord. And above all, my church teaches me to turn the other cheek when struck by an opponent. I wish more advocates of RFRA could remember this about our religion most of all.

The RFRA debate is much bigger than whether this protection is codified into law. It is an opportunity for those in the Christian faith to show the love, tolerance, and forgiveness that are cornerstones of the faith. They are also attributes that are currently non-existent in this public debate.

There is room to accommodate the concerns addressed by all sides. It is my hope and prayer that those who say they are advocating on behalf of my God demonstrate the love and compassion he showed to all of us with the most selfless act of all we celebrate this weekend.

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