There's a reason why many lawmakers choose to pre-file their legislation long before the session begins: To stoke conversation, and media attention, about their proposals.
State Rep. Sam Teasley didn't want any additional focus on his already controversial push to pass "religious liberty" legislation. He already earned plenty of that this past session, when it sparked a sudden fight with business forces and other critics who eventually succeeded in scuttling it.
But he's got it anyways. In the last few weeks, corporate leaders have blasted the proposal, Democrats have vowed to stop it and it's ignited a behind-the-scenes email chain among lawmakers who could soon consider its fate.
That's why Teasley decided to quicken his pace. He now expects to file the legislation by the year's end - he figures there's no reason to wait anymore - and he provided us an early version that includes these choice passages:
(a) Government shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, except as provided in subsection (b) of this Code section.
(b) Government may substantially burden a person's exercise of religion only if government demonstrates that the application of such burden to a person is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
(c) A person whose religious exercise has been burdened in violation of this chapter may assert that claim or defense in a judicial proceeding and obtain appropriate relief against government.
(a) Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to:
Create any rights by an employee against an employer if such employer is not government.
Take special note of that last line. While supporters see it as a new line of defense to protect people of any religion from government intrusion, critics fear it's a discriminatory end-run on the First Amendment that would allow business owners to cite religious beliefs to deny people service.
By adding that proviso, Teasley hopes to drive home the message that the legislation only applies to government agencies and not business owners.
"It's not about who should a business serve or who should it not serve," said Teasley, R-Marietta. "If people are talking about that issue, they have missed the point or they are talking about something that isn't in the bill."
Critics are unfazed. Robbie Medwed of the gay rights group Sojourn said it still begged the question: "What is the need for this law right now?" (You can find some of the examples cited by supporters here.)
Teasley's proposal will likely have company. State Sen. Josh McKoon is expected to revive his own push for similar legislation. And some hope for a compromise that would include a ban on workforce discrimination based on sexual orientation, which is not currently covered by state law.
Lawmakers are already set for lengthy debates on ways to raise transportation revenue and Gov. Nathan Deal's promised education overhaul. Whether they have any appetite to delve into another testy debate could help define the session.
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