A U.S. Supreme Court ruling this month that could legalize same-sex marriage would provoke a sharp response from many conservative lawmakers, who predict sustained legal and political combat in 2016 and for decades to come.
Within several months, such a ruling is sure to fuel the fight for “religious liberty” legislation that has failed to pass the last two years amid opposition from business interests. It’s also likely to spur a new wave of election-year proposals aimed at protecting those with moral objections to same-sex weddings.
Social conservatives are branding a potential nationwide legalization as a “Roe v. Wade for marriage.” They forecast a campaign that mirrors the continued fight over the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling 42 years ago.
Among the more immediate possibilities conservative lawmakers are considering: legislation to enable some government officials to opt out of gay wedding ceremonies if it violates their faith; another to safeguard faith-based adoption agencies that reject gay couples; and another to enact a “covenant marriage” statute that is harder to dissolve and appeals to the deeply religious.
“I anticipate if the court moves in this direction, we’re going to see a bunch of legislation related to religious liberty and around same-sex marriage,” said state Sen. Josh McKoon, a Columbus Republican who sides with opponents of gay marriage.
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They will be met with staunch opposition from some leading Republicans, Democrats and business boosters, who fear the legislation would hamper Georgia’s economic development and amount to discrimination. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, for one, said the people who support “religious liberty” and its spinoffs are “on the wrong side of history.”
‘Very much a question of faith’
The fight over religious liberty is expected to figure prominently in next year’s debate, regardless of what the court decides. The boosters of Senate Bill 129 depict it as a state version of federal legislation that protects religious beliefs against government intrusion. Critics say it enables businesses to discriminate against gay customers.
The proposal died in April amid opposition from the Metro Atlanta Chamber, Delta Air Lines and establishment Republicans who were mindful of the backlash over similar bills in Arkansas and Indiana, which led to threats of boycotts and international criticism.
Gov. Nathan Deal and other GOP leaders urged the proposal to include non-discrimination protections to appease critics, creating a sharp divide within the party. Deal backtracked on his demand days after Georgia GOP delegates endorsed a version of the legislation without those protections.
The proposal’s staunchest supporters are careful to say gay marriage has nothing to do with the push for the law. McKoon, the measure’s sponsor, said about half the states where same-sex marriage is legal also have passed similar legislation. Other backers, though, see them as intrinsically connected.
“They are absolutely intertwined,” said state Sen. Mike Crane, R-Newnan. “Ultimately at the end of the day, the Supreme Court is ruling on what God says is valid or not. And this is very much a question of faith.”
U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, a Cassville Republican, cast religious freedom measures as an “anti-government bullying bill” that in some instances has to do with gay marriage — such as the archetypal baker who refuses to make a cake for a gay wedding.
‘It’s hard to see where it ends’
That’s just the tip of the spear, though. Several lawmakers predicted proposals that would restrict state tax credits and housing benefits for same-sex couples, as well as an effort modeled on proposals in South Carolina and Virginia that enable court officials to opt out of same-sex nuptials.
“It’s hard to see where it ends,” said Crane, the Newnan state senator. “It will revamp how it affects so many areas of our life. It’s going to set off a chain of events that’s going to be very far-reaching.”
The election-year proposals would serve up red meat to some Republican lawmakers who are wary of primary challenges. It could also put leaders like Deal and Attorney General Sam Olens in a bind.
Both have pledged to support the court’s ruling, regardless of what it is, but they will have to weigh that pledge against proposals that seek to circumvent or undercut the decision.
A similar tension is at work at the national level. House Speaker John Boehner has tried to skirt the debate, but it’s fast become a talking point for Republicans on the presidential campaign trail as they seek out social conservative voters.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said he would support a constitutional amendment enabling states to enact their own same-sex marriage bans, though the chances of such an effort earning two-thirds majorities in each house of Congress are remote. at best.
Mayor: religious liberty bill will fail
The Duluth-based Faith and Freedom Coalition is hosting GOP presidential hopefuls at its “Road to Majority” conference next week in Washington. There they will speak to social activists convened by group founder Ralph Reed, a longtime Georgia GOP strategist.
Tim Head, Faith and Freedom Coalition’s executive director, said a constitutional amendment, and state-level pushes for religious freedom bills could be on the group’s agenda. He said he hopes the Supreme Court doesn’t repeat the “mistake it made in Roe v. Wade,” the landmark decision that legalized abortion.
“We continue to believe this issue is best resolved in the political system by state legislators and the people,” he said in a statement. “But if the court over-reaches, the marriage debate will continue for years if not decades, and we will not abandon our support for marriage as the sacred union of a man and a woman.”
Proponents of gay marriage are bracing for a fight. State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, invoked the civil rights movement when he said support for religious liberty proposals are akin to a “stand in the schoolhouse door approach.”
And Atlanta’s mayor warned of dire economic development consequences if lawmakers rally behind the bill.
“The consequences are going to be too great to move a bill like that,” Reed said in an interview. “We are competing for a BCS Championship. We are competing for a Super Bowl. We are competing for a Final Four. And I don’t think any of those things can be put in jeopardy by having a bill next year that goes too far.”