Prepare yourself for some March Madness, "religious freedom" style. The controversial bill gets a hearing in the Georgia House on Tuesday despite lingering doubts about it from Republican House Speaker David Ralston.
As Ralston (photo) lamented to a roomful of journalists at the Atlanta Press Club on Thursday that he's concerned that "closing the door to anyone is closing the door to all," the House Judiciary (Civil) Special Subcommittee scheduled a Tuesday hearing on the bill, according to Peach Pundit. That's Senate Bill 129, the measure from Republican Sen. Josh McKoon that's prompted rallies, personal attacks, press conferences, newspaper ads and even divisions among Republicans. It easily passed the Senate in early March, despite the controversy swirling around it and charges from critics that it provides a license to discriminate against LGBT people.
Ralston said again on Thursday that he's listening to both sides of the debate yet pooh-poohed what he called "misinformation swirling out there" about the legislation.
Some things in our legislative process, unfortunately, do take time to work out. Before we move forward, we have to understand what the impact of this legislation will be on the rule of law in this state. We need to know if this legislation opens the door to unintended consequences of any type, that some may try to exploit.
“I take proponents of this measure at their word that discrimination toward anyone is not part of this effort. At the same time, I appreciate the concerns of those who have strong opposition to this legislation.
“The good news is that Georgia is a global destination for people from all over the world who want to come visit and for businesses that want to come create jobs. And that is not going to change.
“But closing the door to anyone is closing the door to all.”
Ralston also took a swing at WSB talking head Erick Erickson, who has criticized the deliberate pace of McKoon's bill in the House since it sailed through a Senate vote. Erickson, used to savaging gay Atlanta with his anti-gay blather, turned his venom on Republicans – Ralston and state Rep. Wendell Willard, who chairs the House committee that will hold Tuesday's hearing. Erickson ripped the pair on Wednesday's show.
“What does the Republican party stand for? I look at this Georgia situation. You’ve got the speaker of the House, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in Georgia, whose wife is the chair of the Georgia Republican party foundation. I mean they are embedded in the leadership of the Republican party. And they don’t even want to secure religious liberty in Georgia?”
A day later, Ralston fired back.
“In this and other passionate debates, however, there always seems to be a few for whom honest, reasonable, and civil discussion is an alien concept that they are simply not acquainted with. These pundits-for-hire and self-professed thought leaders are not looking to protect anything, or anyone. They seek profit, relevance, and attention by preying on people’s worst fears through loud volume, lies and distortions.
“I have no interest in rushing to act on this or any other issue merely to coddle over-inflated egos or help grow someone’s bank account."
Ouch. The Ralston-Erickson tussle isn't the first intra-party squabble over McKoon's legislation. McKoon and Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert locked horns during a hearing last month. Former Attorney General Michael Bowers, once an anti-gay Republican, hates it. And so do these gay Republicans and this one, too.
It's also not the first time Ralston has expressed doubts over the need for the "religious freedom" bill. On March 11, he told Georgia Public Broadcasting's "Lawmakers" that he's not convinced the bill is needed.
“My question is, and the questions I’ve asked, is if a constitutional guarantee is not sufficient than what is this bill, this statute, going to do that our constitution doesn’t do?” he told host Bill Nigut.
“I’ve been having that discussion with people on both sides of the issue,” Ralston added.
“I believe the constitution is the paramount legal document of this state and this country. And if we need to codify those guarantees in terms of our freedom of worship, do we also need to do so for freedom of the press,freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and all these other rights we have?” Ralston said.
Ralston also questioned the need for the bill in a January press conference. And he likely quashed a similar "religious freedom" proposal from state Rep. Sam Teasley when the Marietta Republican voted against Ralston on a massive transportation funding bill. Three days after that vote, Teasley dropped his bill.
But still, that hearing. It will be chaired by Willard and how it unfolds is anyone's guess. Willard, a Sandy Springs Republican, is a co-sponsor of a bill from lesbian state Rep. Karla Drenner to ban discrimination against LGBT state employees. But in 2012, Willard stalled a similar bill in a messy hearing with state troopers and limits on media coverage.
With the hearing now scheduled, LGBT activists are preparing for a last-ditch fight to kill the measure. Georgia Unites Against Discrimination – a coalition of gay groups opposing the measure – warned supporters on Friday that "RFRA is hanging by a thread" and urged them to lobby their state representatives.
We only have a matter of days to make our elected leaders know that this bill could open the floodgates to discrimination in Georgia by giving individuals and businesses the ability to ignore any law—including non-discrimination laws—in the name of religious freedom.
And the message seems to be getting through. Because just yesterday, House Speaker David Ralston questioned if RFRA is needed at all and raised the same concerns we’ve been raising all along—that “closing the door to anyone is closing the door to all.”
Before, passing RFRA was seen as a done deal. But now, thanks to the hardwork supporters like you have put into this campaign, this misguided bill is hanging by a thread.
Their renewed push comes after about 200 people rallied at the State Capitol on Tuesday to denounce the bill. A day later, the group bought a full-page ad in the AJC to describe the harms it says the bill would bring to LGBT Georgians.
The full-page ad describes that Senate Bill 129 “will give businesses and individuals a license to discriminate against anyone they don’t like.” Some of the harms that could result if this bill passes include a public high school counselor turning away a student struggling with his or her sexual orientation and a hospital refusing to treat the child of a same-sex couple.
The ad states that the freedom of religion, one of our most fundamental rights, is already protected in the state and federal constitutions. But that freedom does not give any of us the right to discriminate against others.
In bold, the ad emphasizes that “The passage of SB 129 will send a loud message across the country that Georgia is an unwelcoming place.”
McKoon argues that the bill is "a simple, modest, common sense protection for people of faith."