Religious Freedom Bill Dies in Georgia

by | April 6, 2015

By Aaron Gould Sheinin and Kristina Torres

Georgia's brush with the "religious liberty" controversies engulfing Indiana and Arkansas appeared to fizzle Thursday as the end of lawmakers' annual legislative session approached without passage, putting off an issue likely to be back here next year.

Senate Bill 129 has sparked countless rallies and protests and hours of debate, and its supporters wasted little effort to get it approved. That included an unsuccessful last-minute attempt Thursday by its sponsor, state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, to attach it to an unrelated bill -- something he called necessary after it became clear the House would not move it forward independently.

"We have waited politely day after day for the simple courtesy of a floor vote," McKoon said before withdrawing the amendment because it would have been ruled out of order. "I did want to come up here and thank my colleagues who've spoken out and who've stood with me."

The proposal has been at the center of one of the fiercest debates at the Capitol since last year, when supporters first tried to get a "religious liberty" bill passed in Georgia. Supporters cast it as a new line of defense to protect people of any religion from interference. Opponents warn it's a discriminatory end run on the First Amendment that could allow business owners to cite religious beliefs to deny people service.

But Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, has questioned the need for the bill all year, and it found little traction in the House.

"We have a committee process, and we have acted on that process," Ralston told GPB's "Lawmakers" program Thursday evening. "It just couldn't get out of committee. ... I'm not going to have the House committee process subverted.

"I think we will have a vote next year."

SB 129 uses much the same language as federal legislation that Congress passed in 1993 and carries President Bill Clinton's signature. It asserts that government has to show a compelling interest for why its policy should override an individual's religious freedom.

Conservatives want the bill, but some conservative members of the House Judiciary Committee tabled it last week after other mostly moderate members successfully added language saying the bill could not be used to discriminate against anyone protected by local, state or federal law.

The move appeased critics, who say the legislation is not needed and could allow businesses to cite the law to refuse goods or services for gay weddings or gay advocacy groups.

McKoon as late as Thursday, however, decried the move and said the House amendment would have "rendered the bill meaningless" by adding language used by none of the more than two dozen states that have adopted their own version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act or use the same legal standard through court decisions.

But by then, the writing may have been on the wall. Hometown heavyweight Coca-Cola joined several companies Thursday morning in warning against efforts to pass the legislation. In a statement, the company said it did "not support any legislation that discriminates, in our home state of Georgia or anywhere else. Coca-Cola values and celebrates diversity."

That, too, raised McKoon's ire. "When those corporations stop doing business with ayatollahs, stop doing business in places where homosexuality is a crime, then I'll be interested in their opinion," he said.

Gov. Nathan Deal said in an interview that lawmakers next year must ensure that the bill isn't discriminatory.

"That's the most important thing. And that is a delicate thing to do. There's been so much hyperbole. It's hard to identify what can you say without saying too much, what can you say without saying too little, and what will people read into either version that you like."

He added:

"We all understand that this is a difficult issue, and I hope that if and when it comes to my desk in the future it will not have the same kind of divisiveness associated" in Indiana and Arkansas.

Unlike last year, when state Rep. Sam Teasley, R-Marietta, and McKoon waited until the middle of the legislative session to introduce "religious liberty" bills, nobody was surprised when they returned this year.

Along the way, Teasley made the decision to stop work on his own bill and focus on McKoon's SB 129. It passed the Senate with overwhelming support from Republicans but landed with a dull thud in the House.

t never got off the table in the House, despite the protestations of supporters such as Erick Erickson of AM 750 and 95.5FM WSB, who compared the three Republicans who voted for the crushing amendment to Judas.

It's unclear, however, whether the bill failed to move in the House because of lack of support for the concept or because Erickson and his ilk so angered House leadership; or because state leaders saw the condemnation rain down on Indiana after that state's governor signed a similar bill into law; or, finally, because Republicans in the House and Senate cut a deal with Democrats to kill it in exchange for support for another measure.

The issue is not likely to go away. Because the Georgia Legislature works on a two-year cycle, SB 129 remains alive and will be waiting when lawmakers return for their next session in January. The bill will be sitting right where it is now: on the table in the Judiciary Committee, a few votes away from the governor's desk.

(c)2015 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)