A second 'religious liberty' bill is introduced

The other shoe in this year’s biggest culture fight has finally dropped. State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, has introduced S.B. 129, which bears the title of "Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act."

The bill will get a first reading today. McKoon tells us that 29 of his fellow Republicans have signed onto the measure, meaning that it already has majority support. And probably will get a quick committee hearing.

Though the two sponsors hotly deny it, opponents of the bill contend that both measures are attempts to allow businesses and others legal standing to refuse services to married gay couples. Here’s your copy of the legislation:

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Supporters of the religious liberty bills keep telling us that the measure has nothing to do with Kelvin Cochran, the Atlanta fire chief who was fired for failure to follow City Hall protocol when he published a religious book that included a condemnation of homosexuality.

And yet Cochran's name keeps coming up. This afternoon, a lawyer for the Alliance Defending Freedom will be in the Capitol, to discuss "new developments in the wake of the city’s termination of Cochran from his job."

And over at our premium site, our AJC colleague Katie Leslie reports that Cochran's dismissal has attracted the attention of six Republican members of Congress from Georgia:

U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk and several other Republican members of the Georgia delegation recently sent a letter to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, accusing the mayor of violating “fundamental principles of free speech and religious freedom” when he terminated Cochran in early January. ...

In the Feb. 10 letter, Loudermilk writes that by terminating him, “Atlanta itself engaged in an act of discrimination.” The letter, co-signed by Republicans Rep. Buddy Carter, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, Rep. Tom Price, Rep. Austin Scott and Rep. Jody Hice, calls for Cochran’s reinstatement.

Loudermilk elaborated in an interview with the Family Research Council's "Washington Watch" radio show, saying he felt like he was back in the U.S.S.R. The key comment, as captured by Buzzfeed:

“And what we’re seeing now is the government being used as an arm, an enforcer to force people to act and think in a certain way. This is exactly what the Soviet Union did. The irony in all this is right now is many elements of the church have more liberties in Russia today than they do in America.”

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But not so fast about that Russia thing. It is not unusual for foreign delegations to breeze through the state Capitol as part of exchanges sponsored by this group or that. Usually, they want to know how we do things here.

Yet on Tuesday, a small delegation from Ukraine arrived, brought here by state Rep. Tom Taylor, R-Dunwoody – just as their countrymen were suffering a serious blow. From the New York Times:

Ukrainian forces fought their way out of the embattled town of Debaltseve overnight on Wednesday, choosing a risky breakout rather than surrender as they abandoned the strategic transportation hub to Russian-backed militants.

President Petro O. Poroshenko said in a televised statement that he had ordered the retreat from the town, where intense fighting has raged in recent days despite a cease-fire agreement signed last week.

Mr. Poroshenko sought to cast the retreat in a positive light, but the loss of the town was clearly a devastating setback at the hands of separatists. Still, by avoiding capture, those who made it out also avoided handing a powerful bargaining chip to the rebel leaders.

We sat down with the Ukranians in the DeKalb County delegation meeting room. More than anything, they were eager for Americans to understand what was happening in Russia's shadow.  Here’s what one of them said, through a translator:

“The direct Russian aggression continues to proceed in Ukraine, and we see no troop pullout in accordance with the Minsk agreement. So we see that neither [German] Chancellor [Angela] Merkel nor President [Francois] Hollande of France can do anything to stop [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”

We asked if the next step would be the supply of lethal weapons by the United States. The answer:

“We do not believe direct weapons supply by the U.S. will somehow alter Putin’s stance or view that his elite has for this conflict. Because many of them believe that the United States has been supplying weapons to Ukraine. This is what [Putin] actually said in Hungary two hours ago.

“No official from the U.S. has admitted that the U.S. has given Ukraine lethal weapons. However, we know that Ukraine has been receiving from the U.S. armored vehicles and other military transportation with no weapons mounted on them. The understanding is that the Ukrainians mount their own weapons.”

It was time, the Ukranian told us in conclusion, for NATO and the United Nations to decide why they exist – if not to defend victims of aggression and avoid yet another European war.

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“It's not a subject people sit around the dinner table talking about."

That understatement was uttered by state Rep. Tom Kirby when asked by WSB-TV about his proposal that would

The measure, House Bill 287, has received a wave of national attention, most recently from The Washington Post. The writeup noted that the Loganville Republican made the threat of glow-in-the-dark embryos one of four issues he highlighted in his re-election campaign.

From the story:

"The mixing of Human Embryos with Jellyfish cells to create a glow in the dark human," his 2014 campaign Web site reads, "we say not in Georgia."

Kirby won his reelection bid in a rout.

Despite the fact that his bill appears to target imaginary creatures, it isn't entirely inspired by them. If Georgia passed Kirby's bill, it wouldn't be the first state to do so. Arizona and Louisiana have similar measures. And George W. Bush used his 2006 State of the Union to call for a ban -- albeit in much more general terms.

Maybe we shouldn't be surprised another animal bill is up for debate this session. We've already seen bills allowing raccoons to treat hunting dogs and to designate the gray fox - no, make that the white-tailed deer - Georgia's official state mammal.

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A pair of proposals that would legalize fireworks sales in Georgia are to be combined into one explosive package.

House Bill 15 and House Bill 110 aim to expand Georgia law that now only permits the sale of sparklers and smaller fireworks to be sold.

Walter Jones of Morris News reports that sponsors are making -- surprise -- an economic development case. From his story:

Legalizing fireworks sales could create 1,000 to 1,500 jobs and pump $10 million into state coffers under a tax created by HB 110, said its sponsor, Rep. Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla. The money would be intended for firefighter training and the state’s trauma units.

That would be enough for each unit to treat two cases of typical burns caused by fireworks, according to David Tatum, lobbyist for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the nation’s largest pediatric hospital.

“It’s not that attractive,” he said. “We’ll still oppose it.”

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The case of political consultant Tyler Harber, who pleaded guilty to violating federal election law by coordinating between a congressional campaign and Super PAC, has attracted considerable attention as it is the first such criminal prosecution of the Super PAC era.

The Sunlight Foundation points out that Harber’s Alexandria,Va., firm, Harden Global, worked for several other campaigns last year – including now-Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga.

But the Perdue campaign said it never dealt directly with Harber. The consulting firm set up phones the campaign used for phone banking.

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We have an initial answer to the question posed in Tuesday's Jolt about how Congress will respond to a Texas judge halting, for now, President Barack Obama's immigration actions: They're digging in. From The Hill:

Don’t count on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to play dealmaker in the fight over Department of Homeland Security funding.

The Kentucky Republican is under intense pressure from conservatives to hold the line against President Obama’s immigration actions, and he shows no signs of backing down.

McConnell on Tuesday used a judge’s injunction against Obama’s immigration order to increase the pressure on Democrats, saying the onus is on them to stop filibustering legislation that would fund the DHS and stop an illegal power grab by the White House.“Senate Democrats — especially those who’ve voiced opposition to the President’s executive overreach — should end their partisan filibuster of Department of Homeland Security funding,” McConnell said in a statement.

McConnell could have seized on the injunction to push conservatives toward funding the DHS while the court fight plays out. The fact that he didn’t, Senate Democrats say, is a sign that McConnell won’t be coming to the negotiating table.

And Bloomberg has the swing Democrats holding their ground:

At least three of the Senate Democrats who Republicans are trying to get to switch their votes aren’t changing their positions. Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri’s spokeswoman, Sara Feldman, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia’s aide, Katie Longo, said the lawmakers continue to believe Congress should pass a “clean” bill to fund the agency and then debate immigration issues separately.

Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota holds the same view, said a congressional aide who sought anonymity.

The initial reaction from Georgia's members fell on those same lines. U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., sent over a statement:

“The Senate has voted multiple times on the House-passed Homeland Security appropriations bill that would hold the president accountable for his unconstitutional executive amnesty. The U.S. District Court in Texas has now affirmed that the president’s executive action on immigration may be illegal. It’s time to act on the Homeland Security funding bill and to stop this executive overreach.”

Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, had the same view:

“House Republicans have already acted to stand up to the President and restore the balance of powers. It's time for Senate Democrats to allow our bill to move forward to fund the Department of Homeland Security and block President Obama’s unconstitutional executive action on immigration once and for all."

On the legal side of things, our AJC colleague Jeremy Redmon has much more on the case in today's premium edition.

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The case of political consultant Tyler Harber, who pleaded guilty to violating federal election law by coordinating between a congressional campaign and Super PAC, has attracted considerable attention as it is the first such criminal prosecution of the Super PAC era.

The Sunlight Foundation points out that Harber’s Alexandria, Va., firm, Harden Global, worked for several other campaigns last year – including now-Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga.

But the Perdue campaign said it never dealt directly with Harber. The consulting firm set up phones the campaign used for phone banking.

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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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