Georgia Senate committee sidetracks ‘religious liberty’ bill

A Georgia lawmaker hoping to fast-track his “religious liberty” bill received an unexpected shock Thursday when a committee that he himself heads as chairman rebelled and tabled the legislation.

Senate Bill 129, sponsored by state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, is now the second religious liberty bill to stall at the Capitol despite pressure by conservatives to pass a bill they say would prevent government intrusion on faith-based beliefs.

More surprisingly, the Judiciary Committee vote came with bipartisan support from Senate GOP leaders including Majority Leader Bill Cowsert, R-Athens. And it came after McKoon, who introduced the bill Wednesday, prevented Cowsert from amending it to add that the government had a compelling interest to act against religious beliefs if it prevented child abuse or protected individuals from discrimination.

“I’m certainly disappointed people that are in the same political party would vote to stop legislation that people in the Republican Party clearly want us to move forward on,” McKoon said afterward, acknowledging that he expected neither the amendment nor the rebellion. “It’s disappointing.”

Cowsert, the second-most-powerful Republican in the Senate, made no apology. “There’s been a lot of misconceptions over the last few months that this was in some way a vehicle that would allow discrimination against anyone,” he said. “I wanted to make that clear that the government does have a compelling state interest to prevent discrimination and to protect our children.”

SB 129 uses much the same language as federal legislation passed by Congress in 1993 and signed by President Bill Clinton. It asserts that government has to show a compelling interest for why its policy should override an individual’s religious freedom.

Its backers, including several who testified Thursday, say McKoon’s efforts aim to only mirror the federal law — and not go further — and shouldn’t be controversial. During the meeting, McKoon rejected other members’ suggestions about making changes, too, saying he wanted to stick as close to federal language as possible.

The bill, then, would apply not only to individuals seeking to protect their religious beliefs but also some businesses — something affirmed by the Supreme Court last year in the Hobby Lobby case, when it ruled family-owned corporations could mount religious objections to paying for women’s contraceptives under the national health care overhaul.

The debate on the religious freedom issue in Georgia has been contentious since last year, when McKoon filed a similar bill and drew the wrath of Georgia’s powerful business community, with heavyweights Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines and Home Depot all speaking out against it.

They did so in the wake of national attention over lawsuits against businesses that refused to provide goods or services for gay weddings or gay advocacy groups.

McKoon’s bill this year follows similar efforts in the House — led by state Rep. Sam Teasley, R -Marietta — to pass religious liberty legislation via House Bill 218. Both opponents and supporters have held a number of dueling rallies and press conferences since early January.

Opponents say the legislation is not needed and could have devasting consequences.

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