A special House subcommittee heard numerous pleas for protection on Tuesday both from those who support and oppose a “religious freedom” bill.
The panel of Judiciary Committee members met for more than three hours on Senate Bill 129 but took no action. The subcommittee will meet again Wednesday, and the bill could be before the full committee on Thursday, said Chairman Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs.
The specially created 10-member subcommittee spent the afternoon in the tiny, stifling Judiciary Committee room in the Capitol’s basement for what at times was often akin to a church revival and occasionally resembled a law school seminar.
It’s questionable whether a single mind was changed as the bill has inflamed social media and political discourse in some quarters for more than a year now.
But at the end, a few things became clear: Supporters’ fears that the House had no intention to move the bill forward appear unfounded. But, to the dismay of some more vocal proponents of the bill, it is unlikely to move without major revisions.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, said after the hearing that he’s “encouraged.”
“The chairman made clear he has a path to move forward,” McKoon said. “I feel better about the bill’s passage now than I did at 2 p.m.”
In his opening remarks, McKoon told the subcommittee, “This is not a hypothetical or abstraction, and it’s very real and affecting Georgians today.”
“One thing that has been said an awful lot in the debate is that this is a solution in search of a problem, that we don’t really have an issue in Georgia,” McKoon said in a direct response to House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who has publicly questioned the need for the bill. “The fact of the matter is we’ve documented a number of cases.”
McKoon mentioned a public school student denied the ability to organize a religious social club and a Savannah State University organization banned for holding a foot-washing ceremony. He said the bill is needed to protect people of faith from unwanted government intrusion.
McKoon’s words clearly struck some members of the subcommittee. Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, told McKoon that this would be the “most important bill” he’d ever vote for. Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, meanwhile, said she’s handled many religious freedom cases in her legal career and has found that existing law has solved all of them.
“I cannot find any reason those protections in Georgia law have not been satisfactory, sufficient to protect families from not being able to sustain their own religious beliefs,” she told McKoon. “Do you have any examples of parents’ authority of a child having been violated in a state action in Georgia?”
McKoon said he did not, but that there are plenty of other examples of “the right of free exercise being trampled on by local governments and by university administrators and school district administrators.”
Among those who spoke in favor of the bill, the Rev. Garland Hunt of Pastor’s House Church in Norcross said he’s “concerned and afraid as it’s apparent that my freedom to live and speak my conscience can be overruled by a single, untested law.”
“I voted for my elected officials to protect my religious freedoms,” Hunt said. “The Lord is our judge. The Lord is our lawmaker.”
But others were less clear on the bill’s potential impacts. Willard, the committee chairman, corrected one Baptist preacher who was convinced that if gay marriage becomes legal and this bill doesn’t pass, he could be forced to officiate at same-sex weddings.
“It won’t,” Willard said. “It won’t.”
Willard, too, challenged McKoon over how someone who feels their rights have been violated under the bill would get relief. McKoon said in many cases the aggrieved individual would have to go to court and seek “injunctive relief” against the state.
“You’re aware in Georgia there is not the ability to bring action in Georgia to seek injunctive relief against government?” Willard said. “So, do we have remedy?”
McKoon acknowledged that’s the case and said the General Assembly needs to pass Willard’s separate bill that addresses that.
But McKoon also held firm to claims of discrimination, challenging opponents to name a single case in any state with similar laws on the books. None were offered because, he said, they don’t appear to exist.
Some of the most compelling testimony came from former Rep. Ed Lindsey, R-Atlanta, who brought a number of suggested changes to the bill.
Lindsey, who said he came “to neither sanctify nor vilify the bill,” suggested a number of new definitions in an attempt to focus the bill, provide new protections and establish specific guidelines for how to seek relief. Members of the committee appeared interested, and Willard made clear amendments are likely.
Among the bill’s opponents, University of Georgia professor Anthony Kreis, an expert on laws affecting the LGBT community, said McKoon and others say the bill is not about discrimination. But some of their supporters, including radio host Erick Erickson of AM750 and 95.5 FM WSB, have said the bill is needed to protect business owners who want to deny service to gays.
“For some proponents, denying service (based on race, age or gender) is indeed wrongful discrimination,” Kreis said, “but mistreating gays in the public square is not.”
Merwin Peake, the brother of Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, spoke out against the bill and said it would “give people the right to discriminate because of their own religious beliefs.”
Largely missing from Tuesday’s testimony was opposition from Georgia’s business interests, who rallied publicly last year to kill similar legislation. The only business representative to testify Tuesday was Ron Tarson, the governmental affairs chairman of the Georgia Hotel and Lodging Association.
“We’re very concerned about legislation that creates a perception that Georgia allows discrimination,” Tarson said. “We are 100 percent supportive of religious freedom. However, we believe this legislation is unnecessary and sufficient protections are already in place.”
Tarson said two major organizations have already said they will likely not consider Georgia for annual conventions should the bill pass.
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