‘Religious liberty’ bills will again challenge lawmakers, leadership

Less than a month after Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a controversial “religious liberty” bill, several hundred people defied the rain to attend the “We Stand with God Pro-Family Rally” on April 22 in Liberty Plaza, across from the Georgia Capitol, to support such legislation. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Less than a month after Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a controversial “religious liberty” bill, several hundred people defied the rain to attend the “We Stand with God Pro-Family Rally” on April 22 in Liberty Plaza, across from the Georgia Capitol, to support such legislation. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Ever since Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a "religious liberty" bill this past spring, advocates on both sides of the issue have predicted its return in 2017.

But, less than a week before lawmakers return to Atlanta, no one is quite sure what will be introduced, only that something will and both sides are gearing for a fight.

"I'm coordinating with the House members and Senate members to see who's going to introduce legislation and see where everyone is on it," said state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, who has become the most public face of the effort over the past three years. "You'll see religious freedom bills introduced in both chambers."

McKoon wants Georgia to join the 21 other states that have similar laws to protect people of faith from what they see as the heavy hand of government. Examples of the bill’s necessity are plentiful, McKoon says, and points to instances where Christian college students have been ordered to end public displays of faith and examples of counties trying to block Muslims from building mosques. The bill’s opponents, however, note that each of those examples were later settled without legislation.

McKoon might find some of his colleagues are less interested in reliving the battles of the past few years. McKoon himself is expected to lose his chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee (a direct result of his outspoken support for religious liberty bills), and Republican leaders in the Senate, who have publicly supported past years’ efforts, have indicated that “religious liberty” is not among their top priorities for 2017.

Such moves are unlikely to deter McKoon and other social conservatives in the General Assembly from pushing the issue and could have the unintended effect of making McKoon a martyred figure among grass-roots religious conservatives who want the bill passed.

The state’s business leaders would rather focus on other things.

“The Metro Atlanta Chamber wants to work with the General Assembly and Governor Deal to advocate for policies that will strengthen Georgia’s reputation as the No. 1 state in the nation for business,” said Katie Kirkpatrick, the chamber’s chief policy officer. “That means a great education for the workforce of tomorrow, continuing to support additional transportation options and working to ensure that Georgia remains a welcoming place for all people.”

Late in November, the outgoing chairman of the chamber's board, SunTrust Banks Executive Vice President Jenner Wood, said the group would fight "religious liberty" bills again. The conversation alone over the legislation, which critics deride as discriminatory toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, is damaging to the state's reputation of tolerance and inclusion, Wood said.

“We are not supportive of any bill that in any way would discriminate against any person,” Wood said in a media briefing ahead of the chamber’s annual meeting in November.

The state Chamber of Commerce said much the same. In a statement, the business group said it wants to work with lawmakers to grow the state’s economy and maintain its position as a top place for business.

“As a leader in global commerce, it’s paramount we continue to oppose policies that promote discrimination that jeopardize the future of our state’s economic mobility,” the statement said.

The political landscape in Georgia has seen little change since Deal decided in April to veto House Bill 757. The same politicians occupy the same seats of power in the House, Senate and governor's office. And, while House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridgesupported HB 757 as a worthy compromise, he has thus far been circumspect in his position on trying again.

Ralston also said recently that he would like to see Congress attempt to craft a national policy that would preclude the need for states to act individually.

Georgia might be at a status quo politically since the issue was last visited, but outside political forces have seen a great upheaval that could affect the debate.

Republican Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election is one example. The New York businessman built a coalition that includes millions of voters who felt ignored by the establishment. Republican lawmakers in Georgia will likely be wary of angering their own constituents who might feel the same way and see religious liberty bills as common-sense legislation that protects their faith.

“If we have a legislative session where we do nothing on the religious freedom issue, we pass a casino gaming amendment, and that’s really what comes out of the session, I think the recipe is there for a very angry Republican primary electorate come 2018,” McKoon said.

Dave Baker, the executive director of the Georgia chapter of Faith and Freedom Coalition, said his group will work to ensure lawmakers hear those voices.

“We’d like to see Georgians have the same constitutional protections that they have from the federal government and the same protections that citizens of other states have,” Baker said.

Baker said getting a religious liberty bill signed into law is the group’s top priority this year, along with blocking an expansion of the state’s medical marijuana program and stopping any attempt to allow casino gambling in Georgia.

Congress in 1993 passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which said government must prove that interfering with an individual’s religious practice was the “least restrictive means” of meeting a “compelling governmental interest.”

The bill, supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, was signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton. It was developed, however, not to protect dominant religions from having to honor practices with which they disagreed, but to protect Native Americans’ use of peyote in religious ceremonies.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1997 ruled that the law only applied to the federal government. Since then, dozens of states have passed their own versions to offer the same protections as the federal law.

But critics of the Georgia efforts of the past few years say the measures introduced here would go further than the original federal RFRA. Many, too, note that the latest efforts only arose as gay marriage was legalized nationwide and the fight for LGBT civil rights expanded.

McKoon, however, said the answer in Georgia could be to introduce a bill that is identical to the federal version. After all, he says, it passed a Democratically controlled Congress and was signed into law by a Democratic president. And, McKoon is fond of saying, there are few, if any, examples of the federal RFRA being used to defend discrimination against anyone.

Plus, he said, Deal himself supported RFRA while in Congress.

“I take the governor at his word,” McKoon said. “He has repeatedly said he would sign a bill that mirrors the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

HB 757 went beyond the original intent of the federal measure. It allowed faith-based grounds to refuse service to anyone who violates their religious beliefs and preserved the rights of those groups to fire employees who don’t hold the same beliefs.

And while it said the bill could not be used to allow discrimination barred by state or federal law, it left the efficacy of city and county nondiscrimination ordinances open to challenge. State law has no protections for LGBT Georgians, for example, but many cities, including Atlanta, do. HB 757 left open the possibility that such city ordinances would become invalidated.

McKoon said trying to pass an “omnibus compromise bill” in 2016 “was a mistake.”

“But, of course, the legislative process is all about compromise,” McKoon said.

Jeff Graham, the executive director of Georgia Equality, which advocates for LGBT rights, said passing a state version of the federal RFRA is not an acceptable answer. For one, the federal Civil Rights Act helps protect those who could face discrimination otherwise under RFRA.

“Without any civil rights law in Georgia, the scales are already tipped to favor claims from people of faith to prevail,” he said.

A civil rights law, he said, would “be a counterbalance, just from a basic premise of protecting some people of faith.”

Graham would like to see the state consider a broad civil rights bill that offers protection against discrimination in all walks of life, from public accommodations and housing to employment.

What he fears instead is the state will return to the fight of 2016 — both the fight in Georgia and the fight that continues in North Carolina.

Lawmakers in North Carolina this past year adopted House Bill 2, widely known as the “bathroom bill,” which undercut a measure passed in Charlotte. The Charlotte City Council voted to approve a nondiscrimination ordinance that allowed transgender residents to use the bathroom that matches their own gender identity.

HB 2 required everyone to use the bathroom that matched the gender assigned on their birth certificate.

The reaction was fierce. HB 2 has been blamed for the loss of hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in tourism. Major sports leagues canceled tournaments and events in the Tar Heel State, which saw its reputation tarnished across the country.

While no one in Georgia has yet to introduce a similar bill, Graham and others fear it is coming.

“I’m very concerned that there may be introduction of legislation similar to House Bill 2 that particularly singles out transgender individuals for discrimination,” Graham said.

Graham likes to believe Georgia is different.

“I do, at the end of the day, believe Georgians are a moderate, fair state,” he said, “and are concerned about discrimination. We are concerned about perpetrating discrimination. I hope what we can all learn from North Carolina is that the politics that may have worked 15 to 20 years ago to demonize the LGBT community for political gain — that’s where society has begun to change.”

Legislative session coming

This is the third in a week's worth of stories examining the biggest issues of Georgia's 2017 legislative session, which begins Jan. 9. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will have the largest team of journalists at the Capitol covering the action, providing expertise that can't be found anywhere else. To get the information that matters most to taxpayers, go to myAJC.com/georgialegislature. To see where particular bills and resolutions stand, check out the Georgia Legislative Navigator at http://legislativenavigator.myajc.com/. You can also follow the proceedings on Twitter at twitter.com/GAPoliticsNews or on Facebook at facebook.com/gapoliticsnewsnow.