Georgia Senate approves ‘religious freedom’ bill

Bill moves to the House of Representatives next


Georgia’s controversial “religious freedom” bill took a major step forward this afternoon despite concerns that the measure would open the door for discrimination against the state’s LGBT residents.

The Georgia Senate this afternoon approved Senate Bill 129, known as the “Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” with a 37-15 vote. State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, says his bill would help strengthen the religious rights of people of all faiths in Georgia. McKoon unsuccessfully attempted to pass a RFRA measure during the 2014 legislative session following opposition from members of the LGBT and business communities.

According to McKoon, Congress had passed a national RFRA bill in the early 1990s. But a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court ruling limited the measure’s scope to federal law. Since then, 30 other states have enacted their own RFRA laws to stop efforts that might limit a person’s free exercise of religion. McKoon said the federal law doesn’t ensure enough legal protections for Georgia residents.

Multiple Democratic senators expressed concerns that the technical bill was unnecessary and could hinder the implementation of same-sex marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court is widely expected to strike down bans against same-sex marriage in the coming months. State Sen. Elana Parent, D-Decatur, said the bill could be “easily construed as a license to try to oppose” LGBT people from having the right to marry. She added that some members of the public have become suspect of the “underlying motives” of the measure.

State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, criticized GOP lawmakers for potentially opening up a number of significant legal problems, gutting the state’s already-minimal LGBT protections, and deterring businesses from relocating or expanding to Georgia.

Democratic Party of Georgia Chairman Dubose Porter blasted bill supporters for attempting to “turn back the clock on civil rights in the name of religious freedom.” Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham said in a statement after the bill’s passage that opponents of the bill needed to continue working to stop the “religious freedom” bill from becoming law.

“As our elected leaders play political football with this misguided bill, they’re not only putting gay and transgender Georgians at risk—they’re putting Georgia’s future in jeopardy,” Graham said in a statement. “RFRA will harm Georgia’s ability to attract top talent, and if it passes, it would undoubtedly stunt our state’s economic growth.”

McKoon told his fellow lawmakers that his bill includes language ensuring that the government has a fundamental interest in stopping discrimination. He blasted the bill’s opponent for making a “scandalous charge” that RFRA bills have given people a “license to discriminate” against LGBT and minority residents. Responding to critics of his bill, McKoon said only 11 people have filed lawsuits nationally because of other states’ RFRA bills. He also said that progressive critics, fearing it would “unleash a wave of costly lawsuits,” were simply fighting this bill to raise funds for their cause.

Right before the bill passed, Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, said the bill “strikes the right balance” and would not strip away LGBT rights. He also said it wouldn’t undermine the interests of the business communities. He echoed McKoon in emphasizing that the bill’s intention were to eradicate discrimination for all people of all faiths, not discriminate against minority residents throughout the state.

“There is nothing in this bill that will deny the equal protection of the law to all people,” said Cowsert, who played an earlier role in delaying the legislation in committee.

The RFRA proposal will now move forward to the Georgia House of Representatives. If the General Assembly’s lower chamber approves the measure, the bill would be placed on Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk for his signature.