‘Religious liberty’ bills gain momentum in Georgia

On the eve of what's expected to be one of the biggest evangelical rallies at the state Capitol in years, House members passed out of committee Tuesday two bills some believe would target gays and lesbians for discrimination in Georgia.

Both bills could hit the House floor for votes as soon as Thursday, raising the decibel level on an emotional battle over religious freedom and gay rights.

It would also cap a week when legislative momentum of the so-called "religious liberty" bills — there are at least eight under consideration at the Legislature — appears to have quickened. Another of the bills, Senate Bill 284, is set for a vote Wednesday in the powerful Senate Rules Committee after several of the committee's majority Republican members said little worried them about the bill's effort to allow religious nonprofit organizations to opt out of serving gay couples or follow government anti-discrimination requirements.

Wednesday also happens to be Georgia Religious Freedom Day at the Capitol, with a noon rally scheduled in Liberty Plaza. The Rev. Franklin Graham will be a featured speaker, and he is expected to detail what he told News 95.5 and AM 750 WSB in an interview that aired Sunday, when he said he wanted to rally evangelicals in opposition to gay marriage and the transgender movement. "I see this as a major failure of our nation," Graham said.

Supporters cast the Georgia legislation as a new line of defense to protect people of any religion from interference or discrimination — particularly if they oppose same-sex marriage. Opponents warn it’s a discriminatory end run on the First Amendment that in some cases would explicitly allow business owners to cite religious beliefs to deny people — gays and lesbians in particular — service.

At a rally Tuesday, opponents of the bills told a crowd of about 200 people that passage would gut local anti-discrimination efforts and open the state to a flood of litigation.

Former state legislator Simone Bell said it was ironic that one of the bills under consideration would for the first time create a statewide civil rights law in Georgia only “52 years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act.” Bell was one of the few openly gay members of the General Assembly until she left last year to lead Lambda Legal’s Atlanta office as a Southern regional director.

Just Monday, state House leaders blocked a bid to add civil rights protections for gay, lesbian and transgender Georgians to that bill, House Bill 849. They did so again Tuesday, when the full House Judiciary Committee approved the bill.

Sponsored by state Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, HB 849 originally would have barred discrimination in hotels, restaurants and theaters on the basis of race, religion or national origin. Anyone who feels they were discriminated against could sue for damages in state court. Currently, only federal court offers those protections.

State Rep. Taylor Bennett, D-Brookhaven, whose mother is gay, tried both Monday and Tuesday to add additional protections to the bill on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age and veterans status.

But, with at least one Democrat absent from Tuesday's meeting, it seemed clear Bennett did not have the votes. Instead, state Rep. Beth Beskin, R-Atlanta, offered to only add "sex" to the list of protected classes in Golick's bill. That passed by an 8-5 vote.

Beskin, who helped block a religious liberty bill in 2015, was immediately criticized by liberals on social media.

After Tuesday’s meeting, however, she said it was clear Bennett did not have the votes.

“I did what I could to make the bill as good as I could,” Beskin said.

Golick said he was OK with the changes. “It’s an important bill given our state’s history as the cradle of the civil rights movement,” he said.

While Bennett and other Democrats were disappointed not to get LGBT protections added to the bill, some think it did the next best thing. Federal courts have held in limited cases that “sex” as a protected class can also mean sexual orientation.

“There’s been a lot of steam given to that argument in recent months,” said Anthony Kreis, a constitutional scholar at the University of Georgia and gay rights activist.

State Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, who opposed Bennett's amendment, said he plans to research how far protections for sex extend before the bill reaches the House floor.

State Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna, said she took heart that Judiciary Committee Chairman Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, promised to help her create a House study committee that would spend this summer looking at ways to expand state civil rights law more.

The House Judiciary Committee also passed House Bill 757, which is called the Pastor Protection Act. The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, would make clear that religious leaders cannot be forced to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony.

The bill is the brainchild of Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and is expected to encounter little opposition as even most gay rights activists see no reason to fight it.