Religious liberty bill heats up House subcommittee

A special House subcommittee heard pleas for heaven’s worth of protection on Tuesday both from those who support and oppose a “religious freedom” bill.

The panel of Judiciary Committee members met for nearly two 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, Chairman Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, said,

Bill sponsor Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus 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 soliution 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.”

Members of the subcommittee responded to various supporters or opponents of the bill fairly along party lines. Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, told McKoon that this would be the "most important bill" he'd ever vote for.

Earlier Tuesday, Jewish and Baptist faith leaders from Metro Atlanta urged lawmakers to defeat SB 129.

“This bill could actually be used as a sword rather than a shield,” Mark Moskowitz, southeastern regional director of the ADL, said.

Rabbi Michael Bernstein of Congregation Gesher L’Torah, Rabbi Loren Filson Lapidus of The Temple in Atlanta and the Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell of First Baptist Church of Decatur all warned of dire consequences should the bill become law.

Supporters of the bill, Bernstein said, “maintain sincerely they do not intend to discriminate” should the bill pass. But, “others say promoting discrimination is precisely the purpose.”

It was the latest foray into the debate by religious leaders. Dozens of other mainline Christian pastors have also rallied to support the bill.

McKoon says the bill is needed to protect people of faith from unwanted government intrusion. He said opponents have lied and exaggerated the bill’s impacts. But others have said the bill is needed to allow Christian business owners to be able to refuse service to LGBT customers.