The Georgia Chamber draws a line in the sand on 'religious liberty' bills

Last week, in the far-away Vatican, a gathering of Catholic bishops very nearly declared a truce in the war against gay marriage. At the last minute, they balked.

Though it was far less conspicuous, we had our own synod in Georgia last week, which took up the same topic. The participants weren’t bishops, but vicars of the Georgia Chamber — this state’s high church of free enterprise. They did not balk.

The Chamber took a first step that will put the very powerful organization in opposition to “religious liberty” bills certain to be re-introduced when the General Assembly convenes in January.

Unfairly or not, the measures have been characterized as a conservative fallback to the growing acceptance of gay marriage in the United States. The Chamber’s policy statement, while not yet finalized, is intended as a signal to Republican leadership in the state Capitol. An early line in the sand.

“Practices that open the door to discrimination or create the perception that Georgia supports a discriminatory business environment would threaten our competitiveness,” Chamber spokeswoman Joselyn Baker said. “It would likely discourage some investments, and possibly affect our ability to attract the kind of quality workforce that we need for the future.”

You’ll remember that we had a sudden fight over this issue last winter. Equally sudden opposition from Atlanta’s corporate giants – Delta, Coke and Home Depot – killed the two bills introduced by state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, and state Rep. Sam Teasley, R-Marietta.

We weren’t able to connect with Teasley, but McKoon said he plans to reintroduce his legislation. Virginia Galloway, regional director for Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, says her group will be among many supporting the measures.

If there is a sense of urgency among supporters of the religious liberty measures, it may be because they sense a window closing. Georgia’s changing demographics, listing in the Democratic direction, will make Republicans in the Legislature less eager to cater to their party’s hardcore, conservative Christian base.

It isn’t just a matter of race, but of age. Early this year, a Pew Research Center poll found 61 percent of Republicans under the age of 30 have no problem with gay marriage.

Not that these religious liberty measures have anything to do with same-sex unions, supporters contend.

“This is not about gay marriage. This is not about gay anything. This about the First Amendment right to freedom of religion,” said Galloway, the Faith and Freedom director, though she also mentioned a lawsuit filed by two pastors of a private wedding chapel, who claim an Idaho anti-discrimination law would force them to preside over same-sex nuptials.

“At some periphery, it might include whether or not a pastor has to do a gay wedding — if that is against his beliefs. But that really is a peripheral issue,” Galloway said. “It’s a much deeper, bigger picture than what was painted last year.”

McKoon, the state senator from Columbus, said the better example of why a religious liberty bill is needed is the case of Chestatee High School in Hall County, where an atheist group threatened a lawsuit over the use of Bible verses by coaches, on and off the football field.

“Those things are happening, and I think they’re happening at an accelerated pace,” McKoon said. The senator understands that, if his bill becomes an argument over gay marriage, he loses. And McKoon finds that frustrating.

“In all the conversations I’ve had, people have acknowledged that there’s nothing wrong with the statutory language, but they felt that the media controversy around it is in some inchoate way bad for the state,” McKoon said. “Which to me is pretty chilling.”

The irony, he said, is that Georgia law already permits the discrimination that opponents say would be embodied by his religious liberty measure.

“Let me put this very simply,” McKoon said. “Current Georgia law – and I have not heard a call from the Chamber to change this – doesn’t recognize sexual orientation as a protected class. This proposal on religious freedom neither takes away from nor adds to the body of Georgia law on that subject.”

Last week, we had one more development on the gay marriage front. During the last session of the Legislature, Catholics were an important part of the alliance backing the religious liberty bills.

But as those aforementioned bishops met in Vatican City to discuss church treatment of homosexuality, Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory published his own thoughts on the matter in a column contained in the archdiocese newspaper. He told of his recent meeting with a group of parents of gay and lesbian children, and spoke of the need for a change in tone.

“Their parents then spoke of the hostile environment that many of them encountered from the Church. The language that the Church uses in speaking of their sexual orientation is often unwelcoming and condemnatory,” Gregory wrote. “I spoke of the distinction that our Church makes between orientation and behavior, which admittedly needs re-examination and development.”

Maybe that re-examination includes the debate over next year’s religious liberty bills, and maybe it doesn’t. But you’re likely to see copies of that column passed around the state Capitol come January.

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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.