Meeting on ‘religious liberty’ bill’s fate canceled

A specially called meeting of the House Judiciary Committee set for Monday was cancelled, leaving the future of the ‘religious liberty’ bill in doubt.

The committee was to meet at 10 a.m., to likely decide the fate of a controversial bill for this year. But a member of the committee, who asked not to be identified for fear of angering leadership, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the meeting was off. The committee member did not know if it would be rescheduled, but with lawmakers only meeting in session Tuesday and Thursday before ending their 2015 session, time is rapidly expiring on Senate Bill 129.

The back-and-forth on the bill comes as Indiana deals with the backlash from adopting a similar law that has led to calls of boycotts and the potential loss of tens of millions of dollars in tourism and economic development. Indiana Gov. Mike Spence on Sunday told ABC News the law is not about discrimination but refused to say whether it would permit a business owner to refuse service to someone with whom they disagree.

In Georgia this past Thursday, in a surprise 9-8 vote, the Judiciary Committee voted to amend Senate Bill 129 to add language making clear the bill could not be used to discriminate against anyone already protected by any local, state or federal law. It was quickly tabled by supporters who said adding anti-discrimination language “gutted” the bill.

The amendment was sponsored by Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, and the deciding vote cast by Rep. Beth Beskin, R-Atlanta. Beskin, just a day before in subcommittee, had voted the other way — to deny the same protections against discrimination. Jacobs and Beskin, along with Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, the other Republican to vote for Jacobs’ amendment, were vilified by conservatives.

Beskin on Friday declined to comment on her vote and Jacobs’ voice mail was full and did not return a text message request for comment.

Committee Chairman Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday that his plan for the committee is to “see if we can find language everyone can agree to.” He did not say what that language might be, but said he had no “bright line” drawn beyond which he would not cross.

However, a proposed amendment passed around the Capitol late last week appears to be one such possible compromise. It would make clear the bill, designed to protect against government intrusion against one’s religious beliefs, could not be used to discriminate against anyone protected by state law only.

But that’s not likely to be seen as much of a compromise to opponents of the bill. University of Georgia constitutional scholar Anthony Kreis said the amendment would undermine protections for gays, lesbians and transgender people passed by 59 local governments in Georgia. It would, in other words, protect heterosexuals alone, making Georgia’s law “worse than Indiana.”

“If you’re looking at state statutes, it would basically say your (local) non-discrimination ordinances are all in tact unless they provide protections for LGBT people,” Kreis said.

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