A high-toned effort to debunk the debunkers of a 'religious liberty' bill

We've already heard the opening arguments. Now the fight over "religious liberty" bills has veered into the expert-witness stage.

Former attorney general Mike Bowers, who declared the proposals an unconstitutional and unnecessary mess, served as the star counsel for the opponents earlier this week.

Your daily jolt on politics from the AJC's Political insider blog Last night, state Rep. Sam Teasley, R-Marietta, sent over his rejoinder last night. It's a letter of support from 14 legal scholars, from institutions including Harvard University and the University of Virginia, who have studied the debate over religious freedom protections. The letter addresses only H.B. 218 -- not its Senate companion, S.B. 129, sponsored by state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus.

Curiously, Teasley's experts say the bill might not offer protection to small businesses seeking to duck gay marriage. A few choice paragraphs:

Opponents of these bills often make absurd claims about the extreme results they would allegedly produce, but they have no examples of judicial decisions actually reaching such results. In the places where this standard applies, it has not been interpreted in crazy ways that have caused problems for those jurisdictions; if anything, these laws have been enforced too cautiously. Litigants can argue anything, but the general experience with Religious Freedom Restoration Acts has been under enforcement, not over enforcement....

Much of the opposition to HB 218 appears to center on the fear that religious owners of for-profit businesses might use the state RFRA as a shield against discrimination claims. The only prominent case involved a Christian wedding photographer who was sued after refusing to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony, believing she would thereby be promoting an immoral act deeply at odds with her religious understanding of the meaning of marriage and of weddings. See Elane Photography v. Willock, 309 P.3d 53 (N.M. 2013).

For many religious believers, weddings are inherently religious events in which their participation must conform to religious obligations. There are serious arguments for exempting religious individuals who personally provide creative services to assist with weddings. But whatever one thinks of those arguments, it is far from clear that HB 218 would lead courts to recognize such an exemption.

The religious claim in Elane Photography lost even though New Mexico had a state RFRA....

You can download the six-page memo for yourself here, or scroll through it below:

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Adventures in health insurance for state employees: We have two tales today -- the first from Pete McCommons, the longtime Athens journalist at Flagpole:

A recently leaked memorandum from the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia to “Senior USG Leadership” brings the news that UGA retirees and their spouses will no longer enjoy that comprehensive coverage but instead will have to buy their supplemental insurance through a “marketplace” exchange just like everybody else.

Instead of the BCBS plan, retirees and spouses will get monthly payments from the University System into a health maintenance account, and they can use those payments to help defray the cost of insurance to supplement Medicare. The amount of the University System payment into the health maintenance account has not yet been determined. Nor has it been determined whether that will be a set amount or one that is pegged to increases in insurance costs.

Then there's the post at Politics and Mores, by Democratic activist Beth Cope, which recounts the experience of a former state employee hired to help implement last year's shift in state employee insurance. A taste:

Erica Manata was hired in November of 2013, to provide member services support for Georgia’s 2014 State Health Benefit Plan (SHBP) enrollment and rollout.

During the 6-week training program, Erica and her colleagues were told to tell members that there would be no changes in the benefit and that it mirrored their old plan. Two weeks after the new benefit plan started, members began calling to complain that medications had doubled in price. Erica and other employees went to their supervisors to figure out why.

Shortly after, there was a mass email that went out to member service representatives indicating that the prescriptions had changed. According to Erica, “some drugs went from Tier 1 to Tier 3, or from Tier 2 to Tier 3. In some cases a jump from $15 to $85.”

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On the question of the Benjamin Netanyahu speech to Congress, Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, is pretty much out; and Rep. David Scott, D-Atlanta, is firmly in.

Here's what Johnson told us Wednesday about the Israeli prime minister's controversial appearance next week:

"I’m still holding out remote hope that the parties will come to their senses, the Netanyahu camp and the [Speaker John] Boehner camp, and decide to postpone or suspend this gathering, this illicit opportunity that they are putting in play. I’m hopeful that they will call it off. Cooler heads will prevail. They’ll come to their senses. They’ll call it off and not force people to make choices on that issue.

"I myself, if forced to make the choice, I don’t think I will be in attendance. But I’m holding out hope that without me declaring that I’m not going, that they will take that load off my back and just simply postpone this meeting and let’s come back and do it the right way."

Scott, a member of the NATO parliamentary assembly that looked into Iran's nuclear ambitions, said hearing Netanyahu's view is important:

"It's absolutely important for us to hear what Netanyahu has to say, so we can open this up in the proper light, so we can make the proper kinds of decisions. The president has a legacy. He’ll be gone in two years. I understand that and I know desperately as president he would love to have something on here that says he got a solution for this.

"But the rest of us and the world have to have absolute assurance. And I think that [Netanyahu] coming will open that up and let us hear and a lot of what he is concerned about is evidence in the report that we did at NATO, which I was on top of. So I feel that even an extra responsibility to receive what he has to say. ...

"I understand it’s not the most pleasant way for it to happen, but I think it’s important now that it’s happened. Better to hear him now, because we’re at the crucible of this in a matter of weeks."

Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, has already said he's not going.

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Gov. Nathan Deal's trip today to New Orleans is part fact-finding mission part arm-twisting effort. And we're starting to see the first inklings of Republican opposition to his school takeover bid.

State Sen. Mike Crane was the sole Republican in the Senate not to put his name on Deal's constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds vote. From today's story:

“There is a problem. I just don’t think this is the solution,” said Crane, R-Newnan, who thinks it would be expensive. He would prefer to see more freedom given to local school systems before creating another statewide bureaucracy.

“So how are our local parents going to feel that some bureaucrat they didn’t elect or have any say in deciding on is now going to decide how that school is going to operate?”

Crane will not be on the trip, but several other fence-sitters will be, including House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, and state Sen. Freddie Sims Powell, D-Dawson.

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House Speaker David Ralston wondered aloud the other day whether anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist was violating Georgia ethics rules by campaigning against the chamber's transportation plan.

We may soon have our answer. Our AJC colleague Chris Joyner reports that Trip Martin, the veteran Georgia lobbyist, has filed an ethics complaint against Norquist. Writes Joyner:

“I think it is a pretty strong law and people ought to abide by that registration if they are attempting to influence a bill,” [Martin] said. “I register and list all my clients and disclose all that I spend.”

Norquist’s group, Americans for Tax Reform, has slammed the transportation bill as a massive tax increase and a broken promise for those lawmakers who signed his group’s pledge never to raise taxes. Along with Norquist, Martin also said in his complaint that Paul Blair, the group’s state affairs manager, should register as a lobbyist.

In his complaint, Martin included a blog post and an essay, both written by Blair, and a story in the AJC’s Political Insider column noting the group’s opposition to the transportation bill.

In a response back to Martin, Cleta Mitchell, an attorney for Americans for Tax Reform, disputed Martin’s claim that Norquist or Blair should register. The blog post is protected under the First Amendment, Mitchell said.

“Under the scenario and interpretation you have outlined, every editorial writer, newspaper columnist, reporter, blogger, author and public policy expert who expresses a view regarding pending legislation must register as a Georgia lobbyist,” she wrote.

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It takes a rare moment for presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush to share the stage. The 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., qualifies.

The Montgomery Advertiser reports that Bush and his wife, Laura, will join a nearly 100-member congressional delegation to civil rights sites in Alabama for the March 7 anniversary.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, told us recently that he invited all of the living presidents to the celebration.

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Freshman U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, has joined a task force within the Homeland Security Committee looking into how to keep foreign terrorists from traveling to the United States. From a press release:

Comprised of five Republicans and three Democrats, the Task Force will assess the U.S. government’s efforts to obstruct terrorist travel and to keep violent extremists from entering the United States. The Task Force will meet with government agencies, top officials, outside experts, and others to generate policy solutions and develop legislative recommendations to mitigate the threat.

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U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue passed along word that a to-be-determined location in Georgia will house a new National Guard cybersecurity unit. From a joint press release:

Georgia will be the location of one of 10 new Army National Guard cyber protection teams to be established over the next three years. When mobilized for federal active duty, the cyber protection teams will provide surge support to Army Cyber Command and support defensive cyberspace operations.

A crucial passage from the pair of spending-conscious Republicans: they "pledged their full support for its adequate funding."

Augusta's Fort Gordon is also the new home to the Army's Cyber Command.

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The Senate Judiciary Committee votes today on Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch. Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who serves on the committee, has already said he'll be a "no."

Once Lynch gets to the floor, Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson has not revealed his vote.

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, has no formal say in the matter, but wrote Isakson a letter this week urging him to vote yes on Lynch. His argument rests in part on Lynch being potentially the first African-American female Attorney General:

"Despite her obvious qualifications and ability to do the job, her confirmation has been held up by those playing anti-Obama partisan politics. I hope you will stand on the right side of history and vote to confirm a trailblazer such as Attorney Lynch not only because it is the right thing to do, but because she is beyond qualified for the position. ...

"Diverse leadership increases the chances of achieving practical solutions to problems facing our criminal justice system. Our nation has entered a critical point in history where it is up to lawmakers to ensure people are treated fairly under the law. As our country becomes more diverse, we will face unique challenges to justice and freedom and I hope you will consider this when deciding whether or not to support Attorney Lynch's confirmation."

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State Rep. Dar'shun Kendrick, D-Lithonia, recanted the Facebook post aimed at actress and outspoken conservative Stacy Dash. The actress,  best known for her role in the 1995 classic film "Clueless," stirred the pot in a Fox News appearance by criticizing Patricia Arquette's Academy Awards speech on equal pay. "I didn't get the memo that I didn't have any rights," Dash said.

It was the spark for your Twitter Fight of the Day:

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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