Georgia legislator’s remarks expose GOP rift over ‘religious liberty’

A testy divide in the ongoing fight over Georgia’s “religious liberty” proposal erupted into the open when the chief sponsor of the measure accused Delta Air Lines and other international corporations of “liberal, far-left cultural norms.”

The speech by Republican state Sen. Josh McKoon was a remarkably blunt assessment of the rift within the Georgia GOP over the controversial legislation, which has pitted reliably Republican business leaders who fear an embarrassing backlash over the proposal against religious conservatives who consider it their top priority.

It’s a fault line that will likely be front and center during the upcoming legislative session, and forces on both sides aren’t backing down as they rally for a new fight over legislation that has stalled the past two years.

Supporters are holding daylong church retreats to stoke grass-roots activists, and they boast of prominent allies such as Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, the presidential candidate and darling of the right. They also will return to the Capitol bearing the unequivocal endorsement of the Georgia GOP, whose thousands of delegates strongly supported the measure at the party’s May convention.

The bill’s opponents are girding for another fight, too. They have spent the months since the past session ended in April seeking support from other business leaders and have sent emissaries to conservative events, such as this month’s RedState Gathering, to present their side of the story. They also highlight the story of Democrat Taylor Bennett, an opponent of the legislation who won an upset victory against a Republican in a conservative-leaning northeast Atlanta House district.

‘Far-left cultural norms’

McKoon, the sponsor of Senate Bill 129, told the Paulding County GOP in a speech this month that it wasn’t the gay rights lobby or the Democratic Party that’s chiefly to blame for the resistance to the legislation, which has stalled in the Georgia Legislature the past two years.

“We’ve had this problem because very large multinational corporations that are headquartered in this state — their executives, many of whom are not from Georgia — have different values than you and I do,” said McKoon, a Columbus attorney. “They think that their cultural norms, their liberal, far-left cultural norms, should be applied to our state.”

He went on to criticize Delta Chief Executive Richard Anderson, who has come out against the proposal, as having a “serious disconnect.” McKoon added: “When you start telling me that our individual civil liberties are somehow a business issue, we’re going to have a serious problem.”

It was a stark reminder of the vitriol over the measure, which supporters say would seek to protect the religious rights of residents from government intrusion. They say the legislation would mirror the federal version that Congress passed in 1993 and carries President Bill Clinton’s signature.

But leaders of Atlanta’s powerful business community, including corporate executives who have long formed the backbone and donor base of Georgia’s GOP, have come out loudly against the measure.

They say it would allow private business owners to discriminate against gays and other minorities, and they worry it could spark the same embarrassing backlash that bogged down similar measures in Arkansas and Indiana. And some view it as a brazen attempt to counter the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision.

Delta in the cross hairs

Delta, Atlanta’s top private employer, has become a particularly juicy target for supporters of the bill.

Anderson turned heads last year when he urged business leaders to “stand up” to lawmakers considering legislation that could be deemed discriminatory. And the Atlanta-based giant, which declined to comment on the debate Thursday, became the first major corporation in Georgia to oppose the measure when it warned last winter that its passage would cost the state jobs and tarnish its reputation.

Coca-Cola, Home Depot and other hometown heavyweights have since joined the campaign. A business-backed initiative called Competitive Georgia has joined the fray, too, urging lawmakers to rebuff the bill or risk “Georgia’s ability to attract top talent, spur new investment and compete in the global economy.”

And the American Unity Fund, a conservative gay rights group, has hired operative Allen Fox to work GOP crowds in Georgia. He stands a sometimes lonely vigil at conservative events, such as the Georgia GOP’s convention in Athens and this month’s RedState Gathering, which attracted nine Republican presidential candidates.

“Conservatives are standing up against the divisiveness of discrimination,” he said. “We will continue to organize and mobilize across the state to make sure that the disastrous economic effects of religious liberty legislation doesn’t happen here in Georgia.”

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