GOP lawmakers: ‘Religious freedom’ bill must have anti-discrimination clause

Several powerful Republican lawmakers said today that if a so-called “religious freedom” bill were to move forward in the next legislative session, it must have anti-discrimination protections.

The AJC reports that the comments came during a legislative panel discussion at the Georgia Hotel & Lodging Association’s annual meeting featuring Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert (R-Athens), Rep. Beth Beskin (R-Atlanta), Rep. Brett Harrell (R-Snellville) and House Minority Whip Carolyn Hugley (D-Columbus).

When asked whether they would support SB129, state Sen. Josh McKoon’s (R-Columbus) “religious freedom” bill that failed in the last legislative session, Cowsert said, “If the House does pass it, I hope it includes that anti-discrimination clause to make sure we are protection people’s religious freedoms but not using that as a shield,” with Beskin agreeing according to the AJC report.

Harrell and Hugley both reportedly said it should not come to the House floor for a vote.

The bill failed in the House Judiciary Committee earlier this year after three Republicans, Beskin included, joined Democrats to pass an amendment inserting an anti-discrimination clause. Rep. Barry Fleming (R-Harlem) gave a stern warning to the committee that if the amendment passed and anti-discrimination language was included in the final version of the bill, he would vote no on it.

“This is the amendment that will gut this bill,” he said emphatically.

The committee voted 9 to 8 to pass the amendment and Fleming made a motion to table it, where it now sits awaiting the start of the next legislative session in January.

In today’s panel, Beskin reportedly raised the million dollar question that the bill’s opponents have repeatedly touted since that controversial committee meeting.

Beskin, said many of her constituents assume the bill is designed to allow discrimination.

“I’m not sure it is, but that’s the presumption,” she said.

But, once the anti-discrimination language was added to the bill, supporters fumed. If the bill isn’t designed to discriminate, “how can there be a problem with making that explicit in the bill?” she said.


State Sen. Josh McKoon (File photo)
State Sen. Josh McKoon (File photo)

Meanwhile, McKoon wrote a guest column in the AJC on Tuesday (behind paywall) blasting the studies presented by the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Metro Atlanta Chamber which showed the economic hit the state would take were the bill to pass.

McKoon claims the ACVB study questions were loaded and that the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s study findings are inaccurate because they compared it to a similar bill that passed in Indiana earlier this year. He claims his bill and the Indiana bill are not the same.

He also brought up another defense of the bill, calling it “an anti-discrimination law”:

It helps to understand what the Georgia RFRA is and is not. Senate Bill 129 discriminates against no one; it is an anti-discrimination law. It has nothing to do with bakers or florists or same-sex weddings. It applies only to lawsuits brought by or against the state or a local government and merely ensures the same safeguards protecting the free exercise of religion that have applied to federal laws since 1993 now extend to state and local laws. Namely, that the government may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion without a compelling governmental interest, and using the least restrictive means of achieving that interest. It protects people of all faiths, including religious minorities.

This is a similar argument raised by McKoon in the last two sessions, which has routinely led opponents of the bill to ask, as Beskin did today, if it’s not a discriminatory bill then why not add the anti-discrimination clause? Expect more of the same come January. And round and round we go.