Crunch time for Georgia ‘religious freedom’ bill as House panel hears both sides

We're approaching now-or-never time for SB 129. State Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus) appeared before the House Judiciary (Civic) Special Subcommittee chaired by state Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs) on Tuesday afternoon to his controversial so-called “religious freedom” bill. While a vote wasn't taken today, the committee may vote as soon as Wednesday whether to send the bill to the House floor for a vote.

"Opponents have said repeatedly is that the bill presents a so called 'license to discriminate,'” McKoon told the panel. “I want to be clear about this, SB129, like the federal counterpart, does not provide any new rights to people of faith to refuse service to any person."

Following McKoon's testimony was an hour each for the proponents and opponents of the bill to have their say. 

Onlookers shifted in their seats throughout the nearly three-hour hearing, which was held in a cramped basement room of the Capitol with a seating capacity of only 32. The overflow crowd was directed to two upstairs rooms where a live feed of the proceedings was piped in, while several scheduled speakers had to wait outside the room for the majority of the hearing. Only two or three media outlets were initially let in before Georgia state troopers blocked the doors to the rest of the assembled media, but the Georgia Voice was eventually able to secure a seat inside.

Proponents, including Mike Griffin of Georgia Right to Life and the Georgia Baptist Convention, Tanya Ditty of Concerned Women for America and former state Rep. Bob Snelling, repeatedly called on the panel to make no amendments to the bill. 

Ditty said the states around Georgia with RFRA on the books are more “economically stable,” and added, "I believe that religious freedom is the bedrock of all our liberties and it must be protected."

Ditty spoke out against state Rep. Karla Drenner's Fair Employment Practices Act in 2012 in front of the House Judiciary Committee. In that hearing, she said Drenner's bill, which sought to protect LGBT state employees from being fired for who they are, would protect necrophiliacs, pedophiles, zoophiliacs

Amendments to the bill are exactly what former state Rep. Ed Lindsey was there to talk about, as he noted in a recent column for Peach Pundit. Lindsey suggested amendments to keep the bill from leading to LGBT discrimination and child abuse.

Rabbi Michael Bernstein, who spoke against the bill at a press conference earlier in the day, made the point that not a single rabbi in Georgia had spoken out in favor of the bill, yet rabbis from the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements had all spoken out against it.

Out constitutional scholar Anthony Michael Kreis explained his reasons for opposing the bill as it is written, specifically because of the discrimination LGBT Georgians will likely face if the bill is passed.

An interesting guest for the day was Merwin Peake, a senior advisor for Atlanta talent recruitment firm True Bridge Resources. Peake is the brother of Rep. Allen Peake (R-Macon), who was a co-sponsor on Rep. Sam Teasley's “religious freedom” bill.

“I'm a recruiter and I'm really concerned that this law is going to keep companies from thinking about moving to Atlanta,” Peake told the Georgia Voice while waiting outside the room to get in. “It's going to be difficult to recruit people, particularly people that are gay. I think they're going to be worried that they might not be able to eat in a restaurant or get their wedding cake done the way they want. The main thing I want to emphasize is the negative economic impact. I see it. I'm on the front lines of trying to recruit people to Atlanta.”

Ron Tarson, chair of governmental affairs for the Georgia Hotel & Lodging Association, was the only one representing an industry or business to come before the panel and voice opposition to the bill. He said already two major conventions are threatening to take their business elsewhere if Georgia passes SB 129. One convention, the American Society for Higher Education, would bring 1,900 visitors to the state.

"We represent 2,000 hotels and related properties throughout the state. The perception is Georgia allows discrimination [if this bill passes]," Tarson said. Tarson said the hotel industry absolutely supports religious freedom but believes it is guaranteed already by the US Constitution and the Georgia Constitution.

"We oppose diversity because it is at the heart of our industry," he said.

The state House's trio of lesbian legislators were spotted sitting in on the hearing, with Rep. Simone Bell and Rep. Karla Drenner sitting next to each other in the front row, while Rep. Keisha Waites came in later on.

Former Georgia attorney general Mike Bowers was the first person to speak out against the bill, introducing himself as Georgia Equality's attorney. Last month, he said at a press conference the proposed bill was a "disaster" and nothing but an "excuse to discriminate." He reiterated his feelings at today's hearing.