Georgia's fight over 'religious liberty' comes out of the closet

Six months ago, the U.S. Supreme Court declared state prohibitions on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional.

Perhaps elsewhere, the high-court decision may have defused the debate. But not in Georgia, where certain Republican state lawmakers have decided that, come January, they’ll double down.

If you’ll pardon the expression, they intend to bring opposition to gay marriage out of the closet.

The last two sessions of the Legislature have featured harsh fights over “religious liberty” bills that opponents say would sanction discrimination against gays and lesbians.

But with the exception of some committee testimony here and there, and a few unbridled, off-campus speeches, supporters have steadfastly denied that the legislation has anything to do with same-sex unions.

Senate Bill 129, currently stuck in the House Judiciary Committee after being saddled with an anti-discrimination clause, makes no mention of gay marriage. Its author, state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, insists his bill merely requires state government to restrain itself when it comes to impinging on anyone’s religion. Whether Christian, Sikh or Muslim.

But next week, Republican state senators will caucus in anticipation of the Jan. 11 start of the 2016 session. One of the topics to be discussed: Legislation proposed by Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus, a former Southern Baptist pastor, that would parallel a proposed federal measure known as the First Amendment Defense Act.

Kirk’s bill would overtly extend specific protections to Georgians, including public employees, who maintain that marriage can only occur between a man and a woman — and act accordingly.

“We have received a copy of this legislation and are currently reviewing it in preparation for the upcoming session,” said Irene Munn, the top policy aide for Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. “Any legislation seeking to protect First Amendment freedoms deserves careful consideration and thoughtful debate. The lieutenant governor will work, in his role as presiding officer, to ensure that occurs.”

The legislation has yet to be filed with the clerk of the Senate. Reached by phone in Americus, Senator Kirk said his measure was still being tweaked, but he confirmed that one aim would be to protect local and state employees with religious objections to gay marriage.

You no doubt saw those protests in Kentucky, after Rowan County court clerk Kim Davis was jailed when she refused to issue a marriage license to a gay couple in September, two months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Georgia largely escaped such turmoil. Even before the high court ruling, Gov. Nathan Deal and Attorney General Sam Olens paved the way for compliance, as did the state Council of Probate Courts.

Obviously, a new front in the war over gay marriage isn’t happy news for the state’s gay rights activists. “That sounds like it would be legislation specifically designed to target the LGBT community,” said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality. “That would be of great concern to me.”

As many others already have, Graham pointed to the fact that the coming debate will be conducted in the volatile climate of a Republican presidential primary. The vote in Georgia is March 1 , in the midst of next year’s legislative session.

The prospect of a small army of GOP presidential candidates stalking the state (and its Capitol building) has clearly emboldened those who would shield opponents of gay marriage from its impact.

Kirk, the new bill’s sponsor, declined to offer any other specifics of his measure, but said it would be closely aligned with federal legislation introduced this summer by U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho.

The Labrador bill would prevent the federal government from discriminating against any individual or group, whether non-profit or for-profit, on the basis of a refusal to recognize gay marriage. The protection would extend to hiring, grants and contracting. Charitable deductions to such groups would be preserved.

The legislation prominently mentions an exchange, during this spring’s arguments over gay marriage, between U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and Solicitor General Donald Verrilli. Verrilli was asked whether a religious school could lose its tax-exempt status for opposing same-sex marriage. “It is going to be an issue,” Verrilli replied.

Odds of passage are slim, but the federal bill is strongly supported by House Republicans from Georgia. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue have signed onto a Senate version.

With all due respect to Perdue, it is the Isakson signature that matters here.

Georgia’s senior senator is up for re-election in 2016. In the six months since he added his name to the proposed federal First Amendment Defense Act, Isakson hasn’t addressed his support in public. Efforts to obtain a comment from his office this week were unsuccessful.

Regardless, supporters will make every effort to attach Isakson’s name to the state version of the legislation as well.

Strategy is involved, and not a little revenge.

Over the course of two years, Georgia’s largest and most powerful business organizations have thwarted passage of “religious liberty” legislation in the Capitol, arguing that it would jeopardize the state’s business climate by prompting boycotts of metro Atlanta’s convention facilities. A Super Bowl could be at stake, they say.

In recent months, both the Georgia Chamber and the Metro Atlanta Chamber have grown more vocal, pointing to downturns suffered in Indiana this year, after Gov. Mike Pence signed into law a similar bill.

By wielding the name of Isakson, a man much beloved by business-oriented Republicans, supporters of traditional marriage will attempt to drive a wedge and split the faction they hold most responsible for blocking their past efforts to stem a cultural tide.

No, that Supreme Court decision hasn’t calmed things down at all.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.