A last-ditch effort to add LGBT protections to an anti-gay "religious freedom" bill passed the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, prompting Republicans to table the controversial proposal.
The amendment from gay-friendly state Rep. Mike Jacobs, a Republican from Brookhaven, was similar to measures swatted down by a subcommittee on Wednesday. But Jacobs' amendment passed 9 to 8, putting in place a change fought tooth and nail by the bill's sponsor, state Sen. Josh McKoon, Republican proponents and religious conservatives.
Jacobs (second photo) said voters in his district "overwhelmingly oppose" the bill over concerns that it would open LGBT people to discrimination.
"I take at face value the statements of the proponents that they do not intend discrimination with this bill but I also believe that if that is the case, we should state that expressly in the bill itself. That is what the amendment does."
Before the committee voted, state Rep. Barry Fleming, a Harlem Republican who has staunchly supported the measure, complained that Jacobs' amendment "will gut the bill." Two other Republicans – state Reps. Beth Beskin of Atlanta and Jay Powell of Camilla – voted with Jacobs and six Democrats to add the amendment. A day earlier, LGBT activists harshly criticized Beskin for voting the bill out of a special subcommittee.
When Jacobs' amendment passed, Fleming then quickly moved to table McKoon's bill. That motion passed with 16 votes, halting what had been the bill's smooth sailing through the House legislative process.
Tabling the legislation left the bill's fate unclear with a only a few days left in the legislative session.
'It couldn't be further from the truth'
McKoon's legislation briefly stalled in his own Senate Judiciary Committee in February when a fellow Republican tried to amend it. It passed about two weeks later, on March 2, thanks to McKoon's legislative shenanigans. Then it sailed through a Senate vote.
House Speaker David Ralston repeatedly questioned the need for the legislation as he sidelined a similar measure from state Rep. Sam Teasley after they butted heads on a transportation funding bill. Despite Ralston's reluctance, McKoon's measure was debated by a special House subcommittee on Tuesday and approved a day later after Republicans swatted down four attempts to protect LGBT people and protections in place across dozens of municipalities in Georgia.
McKoon (top photo) has opposed adding any LGBT protections to the bill despite claiming that it won't open the door to anti-gay discrimination. Nevermind his anti-gay ties.
McKoon continued that stance during Thursday's hearing (watch video), arguing that adding language to protect those ordinances would define "religious liberty" differently across the state.
"The uniformity is totally gone. When you add something as broad as what is before us, you really have an exception that swallows the entire rule," McKoon said. "That amendment would completely undercut the purpose of the bill."
McKoon also disagreed with state Rep. Roger Bruce, an Atlanta Democrat who said that without protecting those LGBT-inclusive ordinances, McKoon's legislation intends to discriminate against LGBT people.
"That tells me that the purpose of the bill is to discriminate," Bruce said to McKoon.
"It couldn't be further from the truth, no sir," McKoon said.
Bruce later argued that the legislation is "state-sponsored discrimination." On Tuesday, Bruce said the bill would allow business owners to deny service to LGBT customers. McKoon also denied that claim.
'Sort of nebulous argument'
The contentious debate over the "religious freedom" legislation has prompted rallies by anti-gay religious supporters and LGBT opponents, the dusting off of a Republican relic who once fought LGBT issues to oppose the measure, personal attacks, cries of absurdity, faith leaders coming out against it and calls for a religious war to pass it.
Also this week, a coalition of hospitality groups across the state said passing the bill could cost Georgia $15 million in convention business. McKoon dismissed that claim as "extortion."
During the hearing on Thursday Jim Sprouse, executive director of the Georgia Hotel & Lodging Association, said the "religious freedom" bill wasn't necessary and would harm the state's economy.
"As an industry we are concerned about the perception as an unwelcome state," Sprouse said. "The controversy around this bill makes it clearly evident that it should not pass."
McKoon dismissed those concerns.
"There has been this sort of nebulous argument that it could negatively impact economic interests and that again is simply not the case," McKoon said.
The hearing on Thursday also included an awkward moment when McKoon was asked to return to the witness table and sit next to Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality. Graham has led LGBT opposition to the bill through Georgia Unites Against Discrimination and urged the panel to amend the bill to protect LGBT people. McKoon looked down at his papers as Graham watched.