After hours of delay, a powerful Senate committee punted on a hearing for a sweeping anti-gay bill at the Georgia Capitol on Wednesday, continuing the legislative stunts surrounding the measure.
The Senate Rules Committee was scheduled to consider the First Amendment Defense Act of Georgia on Wednesday morning. But after five hours of delays – in part so lawmakers could attend Franklin Graham’s anti-gay rally across the street – the panel convened only to have the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Greg Kirk (photo), say he’s not ready to move forward.
“As you know there are a lot of dynamics for this bill and I am not ready to bring it before this committee at this time,” Kirk said.
State Sen. Jeff Mullis, the Republican who chairs the committee, thanked Kirk for his work on the legislation. Then he told a packed hearing room, “We are trying to get this issue done properly.”
Mullis said the committee will consider Kirk’s bill on Thursday.
Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said the shifting schedule on Wednesday is a sign that lawmakers are working behind the scenes on Kirk’s measure.
“They know that in the form it was presented it is completely unacceptable,” Graham said. “This is why we encourage everyone to remain vigilant. This is exactly when bad things happen – moving meetings around, not giving proper notice, bringing people back at the end of the day to then tell people there is no language to be considered.”
Graham headlined a rally outside the State Capitol on Tuesday. A crowd of about 150 LGBT activists, faith leaders and even Republicans criticized the slate of anti-gay measures that lawmakers are considering.
LGBT activists say Kirk's bill is the most anti-gay of a slate of "religious freedom" legislation proposed by lawmakers this year. The bill would allow religious organizations and businesses to opt out of serving gay couples and non-discrimination ordinances in 60 jurisdictions around the state. The legislation would also allow religious organizations involved in adoptions to discriminate against LGBT couples.
Kirk, a Republican from Americus, introduced his bill in January just days after the legislative session opened. And he defended his Senate Bill 284 in the face of an onslaught of criticism from local and national LGBT groups who denounced the bill as divisive and a threat to legally-married gay couples.
Kirk has said the measure would not allow probate judges to refuse to issue a marriage license to gay couples. But the sweeping measure provides legal protections for people, businesses and churches who refuse gay couples getting married.
When he introduced the measure, Kirk said he "extensively" vetted the legislation – but not with any LGBT groups.
"Look, I'm 52 years old. I've grown up with friends who now live a gay lifestyle but they are still very close friends to me and I care deeply about them. And I have shared this with some of my friends and asked their viewpoint as well and that's been part of my vetting process," he said in January.
Kirk's bill has already benefitted from some political trickery. It received a brief hearing on Feb. 1 by the Senate Rules Committee without any prior public notification that the bill was on the committee's agenda. The movement on Kirk's bill comes as House lawmakers are taking action on other "religious freedom" legislation.
On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee refused to add LGBT protections to a public accommodations bill from state Rep. Kevin Tanner, a Cobb Republican A day earlier, Republicans stacked a subcommittee with non-members to thwart the addition of LGBT protections. The bill is likely to face a vote by the full House.
Also Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee approved the Pastor Protection Act from state Rep. Kevin Tanner, a Republican from Dawsonville. It reaffirms that pastors are not required to perform gay marriages – protections already found in state and federal law – or deliver rites and sacraments to LGBT people. It also allows churches to refuse to host same-sex weddings and LGBT events at their facilities, something that churches are already allowed to do under current law.
Tanner has introduced another measure, House Bill 756, that specifically attacks LGBT equality. Tanner's other measure would protect private businesses that refuse service to gay couples getting married.