State Sen. Josh McKoon (File photo)

Georgia GOP dusts off the gloves for a ‘religious freedom’ bill fight—with each other

By sometime late Saturday afternoon, the Georgia Republican Party will likely have clarity on exactly what kind of so-called “religious freedom” bill they will pursue going forward—one that includes non-discrimination language, or one that doesn’t.

It’s one of the headline issues the party will tackle at their 2015 state convention, taking place in Athens on May 15 and 16.

The AJC reports that 15-member resolution committee will have a closed-door meeting Friday morning. They’ll discuss the different policy statements that will be addressed before the larger body, which meets at 2 p.m. on Friday and again the following morning at 10 a.m. Mike Welsh, chairman of the 12th District GOP, heads up the committee and will have major say-so over whether the issue will hit the floor of the convention.

Sources tell the AJC that the committee includes state Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus) and Virginia Galloway, regional director for the Faith and Freedom Coalition, led by former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed.

McKoon was the author of SB 129, the “religious freedom” bill that failed in this year’s session after non-discrimination language was attached during a House Judiciary Committee meeting. He’ll surely tout the results of April’s GOP District conventions, where 11 of 14 district conventions passed resolutions calling for the Georgia House to pass the bill without non-discrimination language.

Gov. Nathan Deal wants anti-discrimination language included in the bill.  (Creative Commons/Rich Lacey)
Gov. Nathan Deal wants anti-discrimination language included in the bill. (Creative Commons/Rich Lacey)

But standing in McKoon’s way is someone who will cast a large shadow in the Classic City this weekend—Gov. Nathan Deal. Following the end of this year’s session, Deal, surely taking into account the national beating that Indiana and Gov. Mike Pence took after passage of their “religious freedom” bill, quickly made it known that he plans on backing a bill that includes the non-discrimination language.

Deal’s spokesman, Brian Robinson, elaborated on his boss’s comments shortly after that in an appearance on GPB’s “Political Rewind,” where he called the legislation “a brand issue” and referenced the influx of film and TV productions in the state as an example of what could be at stake.

“It is a fine needle to thread, and the governor will get it threaded….When it comes back, and it’s cooled down, we’re going to get it done,” he said. “We’re going to perfect the legislation.”

Deal will address the convention on Friday afternoon, along with Sen. Johnny Isakson, Sen. David Perdue and 2016 presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio. Presidential hopefuls Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Chris Christie will also be in town, with Christie speaking at a Friday morning dinner and Cruz at a dinner later that evening.

Fellow Republicans ready to stand with the governor on the issue have been quiet so far, but he does have one new group on the scene in his corner—Georgia Republicans for the Future. The group took out a full-page ad in the Athens Banner-Herald this weekend calling on the party to include the language, and the group will have a booth at the convention. It’s unclear at this point who exactly is behind the group, but we’ve reached out to them to find out more details.

McKoon for his part has taken to the comments section of a Peach Pundit story about the group, calling it “last minute slick public relations,” and saying, “As for the newspaper ad, website and FB page it is classic ‘astroturf’ — where are all of these ‘Republicans for the Future’? Not a single delegate to the state convention (of which I believe there are about 2,000) signed this advertisement.

“Do we know who paid for the ad? Has a PAC been registered? Do we know anyone at all associated with this group? It is Competitive Georgia and Georgia United Against Discrimination all over again. Anonymously funded groups whose sole mission is to get the Republican Party to turn its back on people of faith.”

Georgia Voice will be in Athens on Friday for the convention so stay tuned for more. | @patricksaunders