Georgia House committee ‘guts’ religious liberty bill

A “religious liberty” bill was crippled in the General Assembly on Thursday after Republicans tabled it once anti-discrimination language was added in a House committee.

The stunning move to table Senate Bill 129 came after Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, succeeded in amending it to make clear that the bill would protect against “discrimination on any ground prohibited by federal, state or local law.”

“I take at face value the statements of proponents that they do not intend discrimination with this bill,” Jacobs said. “I also believe that if this is the case, we as the General Assembly should state that expressly in the bill itself.”

His amendment cut to the heart of the emotional and, sometimes, heated debate on SB 129.

The bill’s author, Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, and other legislators who supported him, said they simply want to make sure government cannot trample on a person’s religious beliefs without having a good reason. But the bill’s skeptics, noting that the issue has arisen as gay rights are debated and expanded across the nation, believed it could be used to allow Christian business owners to deny service to gays or other minorities.

Adding Jacobs’ amendment, McKoon and others said, would undermine the legislation.

The amendment, McKoon said, “creates an exception that will ultimately swallow the rule. Adoption of it negates the purpose of the bill.”

Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, who ultimately made the motion to table SB 129, used the old-school legislative term “catfish” to describe the amendment, meaning one that guts the bill of meaning.

“If this is attached, I will not be able to support final approval of the bill,” Fleming said and urged his fellow Republicans on the committee to vote against Jacobs’ amendment.

Eight of them did. But three — Jacobs and Reps. Beth Beskin of Atlanta and Jay Powell of Camilla — joined six Democrats to approve Jacobs’ change.

Afterward, several Republican lawmakers cornered Jacobs and angrily denounced him.

“You gutted that bill,” Rep. Dominic LaRiccia, R-Douglas, told him.

Other supporters of the bill agreed.

“We are incredibly disappointed with the actions of the Judiciary Committee today, specifically the three Republicans who voted for an amendment that would add language leaving people of faith subject to continuing government overreach,” said Robert Potts, executive director of the Georgia Faith and Freedom Coalition.

After the vote, Fleming said Jacobs’ amendment would “make Georgia law worse on religious freedom. Worse than it is now.”

The vote was an exclamation point for what has been a bizarre — even for the General Assembly — story. The bill passed the Senate easily but has languished in the House. A specially created subcommittee finally held a hearing on it Tuesday where it appeared the bill would languish still.

But at a second hearing Wednesday, Judiciary Committee Chairman Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, found reasons to support the bill and, along with Beskin, passed amendment after amendment to strengthen it.

A day later, however, Beskin apparently felt differently. Efforts to reach her late Thursday were unsuccessful.

The bill’s opponents, while pleased with the development, warned that the fight is not over.

“I’m surprised to say the least,” said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality. “My hat’s off to Representative Jacobs for taking the lead, and to the other Republicans who supported the amendment.”

Democratic Reps. Roger Bruce of Atlanta and Pam Stephenson of Decatur, who both voted to support Jacobs, were not celebrating after the meeting.

“I would have been more pleased if they just killed it,” Bruce said.

Still, Stephenson said, “Democrats got what they wanted.”

For now. Three days remain in the 2015 legislative session, and while the bill faces steep odds of recovering this year, it is possible. It would require Willard calling another committee meeting, a successful motion to remove the bill from the table, a vote to again amend the bill to make it palatable to Fleming and others, votes to fend off other amendments, and then a vote on the bill itself — just to make it out of committee.

There are at least four more steps after that before it could reach Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk. The bill is, as of now, crippled but not dead.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.