Under fire, GOP leaders defend efforts on ‘religious liberty’ bill

GOP leaders who participated in Thursday’s rebellion to table “religious liberty” legislation in the Georgia Senate have told constituents they support Senate Bill 129, and that efforts to amend it do not mean they are trying kill it.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, and state Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro, both defended their actions and said they only wanted to perfect the bill as it works through the committee process. The vote to table SB 129 was 5-3; Cowsert and Stone were among a bipartisan coalition voting yes, including three Republicans.

The bill is one of two at the Capitol — the other is House Bill 218 — that supporters say would prevent government intrusion on faith-based beliefs. It uses much the same language as federal legislation passed by Congress in 1993 and signed by President Bill Clinton. It asserts that government has to show a compelling interest for why its policy should override an individual’s religious freedom.

The vote to table it came after the bill’s sponsor, Judiciary Committee Chairman Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, had prevented Cowsert from adding language that stated the government had a compelling interest to act against religious beliefs if it prevented child abuse or protected individuals from discrimination.

Opponents say the legislation is not needed and could have devastating consequences, such as someone citing the law to refuse goods or services for gay weddings or gay advocacy groups.

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As written, the bill would apply not only to individuals seeking to protect their religious beliefs but also some businesses — something affirmed by the Supreme Court last year in the Hobby Lobby case, when it ruled family-owned corporations could mount religious objections to paying for women’s contraceptives under the national health care overhaul.

McKoon said Cowsert by rule should have given him 24-hour notice of the change he wanted. Cowsert countered that McKoon, in an effort to fast-track the bill after introducing it only the day before, provided committee members only 12-hour notice of Thursday’s meeting.

“The author of the bill has specifically stated on several occasions that this bill is not intended to discriminate,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, said in an email to constituents Friday. “The amendment that I proposed simply stated that government has a compelling interest in protecting children from abuse and neglect and to prevent unlawful discrimination.”

“Any suggestions that my amendment is intended to kill the legislation, to water down the purpose of the bill or in any way to divert the bill’s stated purpose are untrue,” he said.

Stone, who said he was the one who actually suggested the amendment, said: “I still favor the bill and strongly believe religious liberty needs stronger protection than is currently afforded by state law. I feel confident that the bill can be brought up again quickly and that the amendment will help make final passage by the Senate and House become a reality.”

Both responded after being targeted by irate supporters of the bill, including conservative talk show host Erick Erickson.

“Tell Sen. Cowsert that his amendment to SB 129 is a poison pill, supported by radical left wing activists,” Erickson said in an email to listeners. “Tell Sen. Cowsert to stop collaboration with the left to dilute religious liberty protection.”

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