Ten years later, a culture war’s lines of battle are blurring

It was a day to marvel at how the world of politics can change in a mere 10 years.

In 2004, a Republican-controlled Legislature, eager to boost November turnout, won the two-thirds approval necessary to place a constitutional ban on gay marriage before general election voters.

On Wednesday, two bills with “religious freedom” in their titles – measures that required only a simple majority – cratered in the face of critics who said the legislation would permit businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

One of the bills is dead, and the other will undergo a heavy rewrite. Give some credit to Delta Air Lines’ loud declaration that that the bills would violate the company’s “core values of mutual respect and dignity.” Home Depot followed with its own condemnation, as did Coke and many other corporations.

But there was also a large dose of Republican concern that a backlash could churn out Democratic voters in November.

What the two bills would and wouldn’t have done is open to dispute. Their Republican authors, Sam Teasley of Marietta in the House and Josh McKoon of Columbus in the Senate, deny that discrimination was a motive.

“That couldn’t be further from my intent. People who know me know that,” Teasley said. More on this point later.

Teasley and the religious conservatives who backed him said they sought to give people of faith protection from government mandates — the Sikh forced to give up his turban to work in a McDonald’s, or the Christian psychology student forced to stomp on a picture of Jesus as part of an experiment in outrage.

The latter was cited as an example during a hearing last week on Senate Bill 377. But at that same hearing, opponents noted that protections extended to businesses would allow them to deny services to gay couples – or to divorced women, Mormons, or Jews — on the basis of religious belief.

Beyond local criticism, the bills ran into a buzz saw that had already been set spinning by Arizona, whose legislature has placed similar legislation before Gov. Jan Brewer.

Arizona’s hosting of a Super Bowl has been threatened. Mitt Romney and John McCain have urged a veto. It is a pot of trouble that Gov. Nathan Deal, up for re-election, doesn’t want served in Georgia.

There is more to this. Ten years ago, the fight to add a ban on gay marriage to the state constitution was a bitter, high-stakes affair. The tussle that may have peaked Wednesday was anything but.

One reason: In 2004, Republicans achieved victory by uniting with African-American Democrats. But that alliance is no longer possible. The endorsement of gay marriage by the likes of President Barack Obama and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has greatly reduced the influence of black churches on that point.

But a larger shift is at work. This generation of conservative Republicans isn’t fighting the same culture war that Pat Buchanan waged in the 1990s. The lines of battle are blurring.

Before Sam Teasley introduced House Bill 1023, he went to one of his best friends in the chamber. He and Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates, spent hours upon hours discussing the legislation, both agree.

Drenner, who teaches ethics at the university level, was the first “out” lesbian elected to the Legislature, in 2000.

“I didn’t see any malice in our conversations [about the bill],” said Drenner. “The intent, perhaps, was to let people have their opinions without being judged. I didn’t look at this as just a new way to hammer people. They think they’re being hammered.”

Nonetheless, Drenner said HB 1023 would have had dire, unintended consequences. She said she was prepared to speak against the bill – though not her friend — had the measure come to the House floor.

Teasley was likewise complimentary of Drenner. “There are few people in the Legislature for whom I hold greater respect, in terms of her intellectual consistency,” he said. “She and I obviously disagree on some of the major issues, and that’s okay. We’re grown-ups about it. We have wonderful dialogues spanning all kinds of issues.”

And when a bill that he wrote might have hurt a friend, Teasley pulled it back and decided to give it another try. And that may be the real difference between 2004 and 2014.

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