An 11th-hour ‘religious liberty’-related bill fails in Georgia

Efforts by some lawmakers to pass a new bill related to the “religious liberty” fight in the waning hours of Georgia’s legislative session appear to have failed after language aimed at corporations’ diversity policies got stripped out of the legislation.

House Bill 904 has now been returned the legislation it started the day as: legal updates involving the state Department of Labor and and the Department of Revenue. The House and Senate both later passed the bill, sending it to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature to become law.

The proposal to add the anti-discrimination language had come with less than five hours to go that deadline. Members in both chambers used parliamentary maneuvering to send the bill to a “conference committee,” made up of three negotiators from the House and three from the Senate. Within hours they had all signed off on a new version that included the original language from HB 904 and added a measure that dealt with private companies’ anti-discrimination policies.

“It is the intent of the General Assembly to protect consumers, legitimate business enterprises, and other members of the public that rely on such statements, pledges and policies,” the new language said.

It made it an “unfair or deceptive practice” for a company to violate its own non-discrimination policy or statement and allows employees to sue if they believe those policies were broken.

State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, was part of the conference committee that came up with the language. He has also led the battled for more than two years at the Capitol to pass protections for religious views. Here’s how he described the changes to HB 904, which was eligible for a vote as soon as 8 p.m.

“In essence, it is an amendment to the Georgia Fair Business Practice Act,” McKoon said. “And what we are saying is, if you hold yourself out as a company with a policy that is beyond the discrimination policies that are protected by federal and state law…and you do not follow your own policy, then you can be liable to a lawsuit from either an employee who’s aggrieved by a violation of your policy or a consumer who’s damaged.”

An example, McKoon said, was if “somebody decides they’re going to purchase a product or a service because of the company’s reputation for inclusiveness and tolerance and then they find out they’ve essentially been defrauded because the company is not following that policy.” That person, he said, could sue the company for false advertising.

The revamped bill came as Gov. Nathan Deal is considering whether to sign or veto HB 757, the “religious liberty” bill that passed last week. That bill makes sweeping changes to state law, allows faith-based organizations to deny service to anyone with whom they have a religious disagreement, and potentially undermines local anti-discrimination ordinances.

HB 757 has been vilified by major Atlanta-based corporations and business groups, technology and film giants around the country and the state’s major professional sports teams.

As lawmakers, lobbyists and business groups began to digest the new HB 904, many were coming to the conclusion that it is designed as a shot across the bow of Georgia businesses.

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