Georgia’s ‘religious freedom’ bill tabled in House committee

LGBT people, business communities score unlikely win

Image

  • Georgia House of Representatives
  • Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham (left) and state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, chat with the House Judiciary committee.

If you’re searching for the latest chapter in the nation’s Civil Rights movement, one where gay, lesbian, and transgender people are defending their contested rights, look no further than the bowels of a Gold Dome committee room over the past few days.

With the legislative session winding down, Georgia House of Representatives have jousted over the controversial “religious freedom” bill during several House Judiciary committee meetings, including two days of heated subcommittee hearings earlier this week. State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, has championed a bill that he says would bolster religious rights for Georgia residents. He’s pointed to 32 other states, which now include Indiana, with similar laws on the books. He and other supporters said such a law in Georgia would prevent government overreach in cases where the right to free exercise of religion was potentially at risk.

“It’s not about being black or white, Democrat or Republican, gay or straight, Southerner or Northerner,” Georgia Baptist Convention spokesman Mike Griffin told the committee. “It’s about First Amendment rights.”

Opponents have believed otherwise. LGBT activists and business community members fear the measure would open the door for business owners to discriminate against customers based on religious grounds. State Rep. Roger Bruce, D-Atlanta, equated the bill to “state-sponsored discrimination.” University of Georgia legal scholar Anthony Kreis told the committee that the bill could jeopardize civil rights laws and fuel anti-gay backlash.

“We’re concerned about the perception of an unwelcoming state,” says Georgia Hotel and Lodging Association Executive Director Jim Spouse, noting that approximately 411,000 residents work in the hospitality industry. “Please don’t discount the importance of that perception.”

McKoon, dismissing those notions, said that “nothing could be further from the truth” regarding its potential use to allow discrimination. The “religious freedom” bill appeared well on its way to passing after two days of intense vetting in a House Judiciary special subcommittee. But in a shocking turn of events, those proceedings screeched to a sudden halt yesterday afternoon.

Following testimony from both sides, state Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, proposed an amendment to the bill that added language to explicitly prevent “discrimination on any ground prohibited by federal, state or local law.” The Republican lawmaker, who in explaining his amendment preemptively defended his action in anticipation of the far-right backlash, said he was representing the best interests of his district. Despite a warning from state Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, that the amendment would “gut” the entire proposal, it ultimately passed by razor-thin margins, with Democrats and two more Republicans supporting the amendment, dealing a nearly fatal-blow to the measure. The bill was swiftly tabled.

After the House committee adjourned, Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham told CL he “could not be more pleased,” though admittedly shocked, that the bill didn’t move forward the House floor for a vote. But he’ll remain on guard until the session ends.

“The belief is that the bill is tabled for today,” Graham said. “One more week is a long time until Sine Die. I believe it will come back.”

Graham also made sure to commend Jacobs’ for his support in a fight that seemed all but lost. That can’t be understated. The Brookhaven lawmaker stuck out his neck to block a potentially harmful bill pushed by his fellow party members. He’s already feeling the blowback from pundits. Right-wing talking head Erick Erickson has already asked Gov. Nathan Deal, who’s supposedly promised Jacobs a judiciary appointment, to reconsider that decision. It’s possible that Jacobs will face retribution behind closed doors from some of his colleagues as well.