Georgia GOP senators make last-ditch pitches for anti-LGBT adoption language, ‘religious freedom’ bills

Two controversial pieces of legislation were brought to the Senate well during the second-to-last day of the state’s 2017 legislative session.

Brunswick Republican Sen. William Ligon’s amendment to House Bill 159, a complete overhaul and revamp of Georgia’s adoption policy, was seen by many as anti-LGBT and discriminatory. This morning, Ligon addressed the Senate on a point of personal privilege, urging them to take into account what he meant by this amendment.

“There’s also been a great deal of criticism leveled at an amendment in the bill which would permit child placement agencies providing services in the state in the same manner which they have done so for decades,” Ligon said. “This amendment honors an organization’s freedom and autonomy to continue to offer services in a manner contingent with its mission statement. It ensures that these organizations still have sound legal footing to do so.”

As he did during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting last week, Ligon defended his amendment, saying it was not discriminatory, but rather provided protections for both religious and secular child-placing agencies. His amendment would allow Georgia’s adoption agencies, including those that operate through taxpayer funds, to pick and choose parents based on their “mission.”

“The amendment does not exclude anyone from adoption,” he said today, citing a Supreme Court decision that said “religious organizations and persons have every right to expect First Amendment protections as they continue to seek the family structure that they have long revered.”

“Though this amendment is not religious in nature, it can help ensure Georgia’s religious placement agencies can continue to fully exercise their First Amendment freedoms and also secular organizations can continue fulfilling their missions,” Ligon said. “We cannot afford to lose any of these placement agencies and we certainly look forward to working through this issue in the coming year.”

Just before Ligon spoke, the Human Rights Campaign released an open letter from a number of child-placing agencies, urging the state Senate to reject the amendment.

“The term ‘mission’ is dangerously broad without limitation,” the letter reads. “An agency could turn away prospective families for children because those families are of a different religion than the agency, or anything else about them that the agency deems to be out of sync with its mission. Further, an agency would face no consequence if they forced LGBTQ children to engage in religious-based counseling, or even subjected them to the discredited practice of ‘conversion therapy,’ if these actions were tied to the agency’s mission.”

Ligon was also a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 233, a so-called “religious freedom” bill that aimed to put a provision in the Official Code of Georgia to reference federal religious freedom accommodations in state law. Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus) took to the well this morning to make a last-ditch effort on behalf of SB 233, and his multi-year mission to pass this type of legislation in the state. Most notably was last year’s House Bill 757, introduced by Sen. Greg Kirk (R-Americus), which Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed. Deal also spoke out against SB 233 and the discriminatory amendment in HB 159.

“I think what people will remember, is they will remember that the Republican party, the party founded largely on an ideology of abolition of slavery, by people who yes, brought their religious values in to the public square, has been completely and totally unwilling to hear the cry of these people and to lend them a basic protection of a fundamental human right,” McKoon said, referencing a Muslim Georgia student who went to federal court because of her choice to wear hijab.

Though SB 233 doesn’t have much of a chance in 2017, it was unclear whether HB 159 would be re-introduced as originally written for a Senate vote — and Ligon’s amendment subsequently brought up in 2018 as a separate piece of legislation, as suggested by 159’s author, Rep. Bert Reeves (R-Marietta) during last week’s committee meeting — or tabled entirely until next year.

“We were told that a great deal of work has gone into this bill over the past two years by the House of Representatives. While that’s true, this process has not included some of the major child placement organizations in this state and has certainly not included this Senate body,” Ligon said. “Our Senate Judiciary Committee has not been invited to any of the meetings or hearings that have been held over the past two years to learn about the proposed changes. … We have the right, we have the duty, to thoroughly review and participate in the process which makes such significant changes.”