State Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, during debate Wednesday in the Georgia Senate over Senate Bill 233, his ‘religious liberty’ bill. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Georgia’s latest ‘religious liberty’ bill sparks a fight in the Senate

Georgia’s latest “religious liberty” bill may have only been introduced Wednesday in the state Senate, but members of the chamber quickly signaled it would be met with a fight.

Members had a rare early floor debate on Senate Bill 233 after Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who presides over the chamber, assigned the legislation to the powerful Rules Committee, a move that gives an uneasy leadership control over whether the bill advances.

Under normal circumstances, the bill would have likely been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the panel that handles legal issues and protections.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, immediately countered Cagle by calling for the bill to be “engrossed,” or protected from any changes.

It was an unusual move. No one said they could remember a bill being engrossed as soon as it was introduced in at least the past decade. But Harbin’s move forced the chamber to debate the merits of the request — and, to a degree, the bill — on the floor.

Harbin was adamant that the bill shouldn’t be changed.

“We can talk about rules, but we can also talk about what is right,” he said. “I want Georgians to have the same protection that’s in federal law” with no tinkering with the proposed wording.

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Harbin’s bill says simply that the language in the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act would also apply in Georgia. The federal law requires the government to prove a “compelling governmental interest” before it interferes with a person’s exercise of religion.

Both he and others supporting the bill said SB 233 stops far short of the wide-ranging religious liberty bill that Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed last year, saying it would damage the state’s reputation for tolerance and inclusion.

Supporters over the past several years in Georgia have sought legislation they say would protect religious viewpoints and prevent discrimination against faith-based groups, particularly those opposed to same-sex marriage.

Deal’s office, however, made clear Tuesday that SB 233 was likely to meet the same fate as its predecessor a year ago if it passes.

And on Wednesday, both Republicans and Democrats opposed Harbin’s move to shelter the bill. His motion failed on a 18-34 vote.

“The governor,” said Senate Health and Human Services Chairwoman Renee Unterman, R-Buford, “has sent a pretty clear message.”

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