A quarter-century ago, Georgia’s then-attorney general, Mike Bowers, withdrew a job offer from Emory Law School graduate Robin Shahar because Shahar had married her same-sex partner in a strictly religious ceremony. Bowers claimed that by employing Shahar in full knowledge of what she had done, he would, as the state’s chief law enforcement officer, be giving “tacit approval” to same-sex marriage. And that, he claimed, would “jeopardize the proper functioning of this office.”
Bowers was, one might say, in a position to know. He was the eponymous victor in Bowers v. Hardwick, the Supreme Court’s 1986 decision that upheld the constitutionality of Georgia’s anti-sodomy law criminalizing oral and anal sex between consenting adults when applied to gays and lesbians. In 1997, a federal appeals court backed Bowers’ position that Shahar’s employment could undermine his office’s credibility when it sought to enforce the anti-sodomy law and other statutes involving controversial gay rights’ issues.
In 2003, the Court overturned Bowers in Lawrence v. Texas, declaring state anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional and provoking Justice Antonin Scalia to predict that anti-same-sex marriage laws would be next — as, indeed, they have been. Faced with an avalanche of court decisions finding those laws unconstitutional, a number of states have been advancing religious freedom restoration acts (RFRAs) to expand faith-based grounds for resisting the consequences of marriage equality. Among the most far-reaching are two bills now making their way through the Georgia legislature.
And who’s the most prominent critic of them? Why, none other than Mike Bowers.
Now in private practice, Bowers has been hired by Georgia Equality to mount its legal attack against the bills. To that end, he’s written a letter to Georgia Equality’s executive director that amounts to the kind of brief you’d expect from People for the American Way. If and when a piece of legislation is passed, he’s vowed to mount an immediate legal challenge. “And I’m going to whip its tail,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week.
When I worked for the AJC I got to like Bowers. A tough ex-marine from the North Georgia hill country, he had the the guts to oppose prayer in public schools and to stand up for the right to burn the American flag in the Deep South. You could give him an editorial pop and he didn’t take it personally. Doing a story on a shelter for homeless vets, I learned from the director that Bowers showed up regularly to help out, without seeking any publicity for it.
“The proposed RFRA is nothing more than an effort to legalize discrimination against disfavored groups,” he wrote In his letter, listing a catalogue of horribles that could result from passage that included enabling the Ku Klux Klan to obtain an exception to the Georgia law that bars them from wearing their hoods in public. “Parents could demand customized public school criteria based on objections to teaching human sexuality, evolution, creationism, world history, or whatever a ‘person’ found religiously objectionable.”
On same-sex marriage, there’s no doubt that Bowers has himself evolved. “I’m not sure myself how my views have changed,” he said. “But I know they have changed. I just know I’ve changed. And I hope for the better.”
I’d say so.