‘Religious liberty’ rift still dominates at the Georgia Legislature

A year away from the Gold Dome has done nothing to lessen the bitterness over so-called religious liberty legislation that has flummoxed Georgia’s corporate leaders, angered the state’s gay community and roiled the Republican Party.

The skirmish begins again Monday when lawmakers return to Atlanta for the 2016 General Assembly. Only this time, the battlefield will likely widen to include multiple bills in a legislative session dominated by election-year pressures — and a majority of Georgians who say they support the idea.

Fifty-three percent of registered voters said the state should pass a religious liberty bill, including 43 percent of Democrats and 50 percent of independents, an exclusive new poll for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

Supporters cast the legislation as a new line of defense to protect people of any religion from interference. Opponents warn it’s a discriminatory end run on the First Amendment that could allow business owners to cite religious beliefs to deny people service — and, in particular, gays and lesbians.

That concern worries many voters. Overall support for the bill plummeted to 27 percent when voters were asked whether the bill should pass even if it allowed a business to refuse to serve gays and lesbians, the poll showed

However, among those who said they supported the bill, a majority of Republicans said the bill was fine regardless.

As things stand now, Senate Bill 129, sponsored by state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, remains tabled in a House committee where supporters blocked its movement late in the 2015 session after moderate Republicans and Democrats attached anti-discrimination language that supporters say gutted the bill.

McKoon has spent the past offseason traveling the state to drum up support for his proposal, which has so far been opposed by House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.

“When we pass a bill in here and it’s signed into law, that has consequences and it’s going to be on the books and we need to thoroughly consider all of the possible consequences of a bill,” Ralston told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a pre-session interview.

Discussion often heated

The fight in Georgia has been fiercely personal, the rhetoric from both sides often harsh. But opponents to the religious liberty push especially say the fight will have national ramifications.

“Religious freedom is critical to America’s core identity,” said James Esseks, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & HIV Project director. “But we know religious freedom doesn’t give anyone the right to harm other people. That’s discrimination, not religious freedom.”

McKoon and the bill’s supporters say they agree.

“There was some accusation that this was discriminatory in some way,” Virginia Galloway, the executive director of the Georgia chapter of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, told a conservative group on Oct. 25 in Ellijay. “That is a lie. It’s just not true.”

SB 129 — dubbed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and commonly referred to as RFRA — asserts that government has to show a compelling interest for why its policy should override an individual’s religious freedom. It uses much of the same language as federal legislation that Congress passed in 1993 and has since been adopted in more than 20 states.

While McKoon has said repeatedly that he has no anti-gay agenda with the bill, there are other activists who support SB 129 — minus the anti-discrimination language — specifically to provide protections to businesses that object to gay marriage.

News 95.5 and AM 750 WSB host Erick Erickson, for example, wrote in March that an “absolute majority of American (sic) support religious exceptions relating to providing goods and services to gay marriage. But gay rights advocates oppose that. The Supreme Court will undoubtedly impose gay marriage on the nation by June. Our state legislature needs to pass RFRA now to protect people of faith.”

Three months later, the U.S. Supreme Court declared state prohibitions on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional. Georgia, meanwhile, has not passed RFRA.

Opponents of the legislation said a particular concern is that Georgia has no statewide civil rights protection already written into law to shelter groups or individuals from discrimination. Jeff Graham, the executive director of Georgia Equality, has called RFRA a backlash against the gay community. At a panel discussion last week hosted by the state chapter of the American Constitution Society, he said he worried the bill’s passage would empower people to discriminate against gay patrons regardless of McKoon’s intent.

Indiana held as example

Corporate concerns over the bill have also prompted a budding working relationship between business leaders in Georgia and in Indiana — a state that originally passed legislation in 2015 allowing florists, bakers and other businesses to refuse service to gay couples on the basis that they oppose gay marriage for religious reasons.

In a study released in November, the Metro Atlanta Chamber estimated that Georgia would lose at least $600 million in convention and business travel, and hundreds of millions more if the bill scared away the National Football League, which is expected to award Atlanta a Super Bowl after the new Falcons stadium is built.

It also said Georgia stockholders could lose an average of 4 percent on investments in companies targeted for consumer boycotts, and its author noted that Indiana was hit with more than 1 billion negative Twitter impressions in the week after its bill passed.

All the numbers were gathered using the actual economic impact felt by Indiana, where the public outcry was so intense lawmakers went back just a week later and added anti-discrimination language.

The Metro Atlanta Chamber has now been joined by a new nonprofit called Georgia Prospers, which encourages businesses to sign a pledge promising not to discriminate against anyone, for any reason, including sexual orientation or gender identity. Nearly 100 companies have already signed on, including major Georgia corporate players such as Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines and Home Depot.

Many think the state’s companies could face an economic storm if a religious liberty bill passes here without anti-discrimination language specifically written into the legislation.

“I think it’s safe to say Georgia will be mired in this fight again,” said Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel with the ACLU. She said the efforts of Indiana and Georgia business leaders to share information about the legislation could make an impact on how other battles play out in other states.

“We’ll be keeping an eye out” to see whether it works, Rho said.

McKoon, however, scoffed at the idea his bill would cause an economic catastrophe. “I suppose that if we had the money we could go hire an economist who could dream up some fantasy where RFRA would make us money,” he said. “This is just absurd.”

The bill is different from Indiana’s, McKoon said. The Hoosier State voted specifically to allow discrimination in private business transactions. “The bill is not the the same,” he said. “There’s no reason to believe we’ll get the same reaction.”

As for the Super Bowl, religious liberty laws didn’t stop the NFL from holding the game in Arizona, Florida and Louisiana, all of which have similar laws.

“Somebody has to explain to me why Georgia is going to be singled out for retribution,” he said.

Alexander Volokh, an Emory University law professor, said it was not clear the RFRA bill in Georgia would do much harm. Speaking on the same panel as Graham last week: “I don’t think we’ve see the sky fall” since the federal RFRA passed in 1993, Volokh said.

More than one bill

While the attention thus far in the religious liberty debate has focused on McKoon’s bill, it’s soon to have company. Ralston has already said he will propose a Pastor Protection Act that will make clear that no religious leader in Georgia can be forced to perform a same-sex wedding. It is not expected to have much opposition as even marriage-equality supporters say that’s not their intent.

A third bill, however, could further roil the debate. State Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus, has said he will introduce the First Amendment Defense Act, or FADA. Modeled on pending federal legislation, the bill would allow Georgia probate court employees to refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses if it offends their faith.

House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, said last week that whether it’s FADA or RFRA, Georgia needs to say no.

“RFRA may have the most well-known name, but FADA doesn’t do anything different,” she said. “I think we have to be very intentional about making certain people understand that FADA and RFRA are both four-letter acronyms we should reject.”

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