State Sen. Josh McKoon, maneuvering to keep his throne as the Gold Dome's hater-in-chief, promised to "absolutely" resurrect "religious freedom" legislation next year and questioned if anti-LGBT discrimination even exists in Georgia. 

In wide-ranging comments on Wednesday, McKoon also threatened to formalize his assault on transgender students, dismissed the need to include LGBT protections in his controversial legislation and criticized gay activists for trying to blackmail lawmakers.

"Absolutely," McKoon (top photo) said when asked if he will again introduce "religious freedom" legislation in 2017. "Obviously, we have to take action to protect the right of free exercise in our state."

McKoon's "religious freedom" legislation roiled the State Capitol earlier this year and though he was sidelined by powerful Republicans, the bill he's championed for three legislative sessions was morphed into House Bill 757 and quickly passed by lawmakers. That measure legalized anti-LGBT discrimination and ignited a national backlash that threatened the state's economy and burned until Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed the bill in March. 

McKoon's comments came Wednesday during an hour-long debate over "religious freedom" legislation on "Political Rewind," a political affairs show hosted by journalist Bill Nigut on Georgia Public Broadcasting. The two were joined by AJC Political Insider Jim Galloway and Brian Robinson (second photo), a Republican and former top aide to Deal.  

McKoon argued that critics of his legislation overplayed concerns about it impacting the state's economy by businesses threatening to pull their operations out of the state.

"These economic impacts that keep being cited, there is really no proof. There is no data out there to support these breathless statement put out," McKoon said. 

Except study after study that showed how the legislation would cause a hit on the state's economy.

McKoon also rejected assertions during the show that his legislation would negate local LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances. He said it wouldn't; critics of the bill said otherwise.

"This shows the effectiveness of Josh McKoon's messaging," Robinson said. "I've always given Josh credit. He is very slick, he is very sly. He presents this little thing as a nicely wrapped gift. It looks really pretty and everybody wants to hug it."

"Then his supporters come behind him and they rip open the box and see there's a lot of ugliness inside," Robinson said. 

Robinson, like Deal when he vetoed the "religious freedom" bill, said current law already protects religious liberty. He added that despite McKoon's denials, the intent of the legislation is to foster discrimination against LGBT people.

"He claims to speak for all people of faith and all religions, and that's not remotely the case. He cites all the support that he has, but when you ask supporters what this is about, it's not what he says. It is about sticking it to the LGBT community," Robinson said.

McKoon countered that the legislation is needed.

"Every person of faith, regardless of their religion, is entitled to the same protection under the Free Exercise Clause," McKoon said.

But Robinson charged that religious conservatives support the legislation because it does target the state's LGBT population.

"If Josh's supporters really believed the bill is what he says it is, they wouldn't be with him nearly as enthusiastically. They are with him because they want it to discriminate because if it doesn't allow for discrimination, there is no point," Robinson said.

"I just couldn't disagree more that this is about discrimination," McKoon countered. 

Nigut pressed McKoon on the issue of discrimination and why – if his bill is only about "religious freedom" – wouldn't he support a statewide non-discrimination bill.

McKoon said LGBT advocates need to prove to him there's a need for such legislation.

"Just like those of us who are trying to pass religious freedom measures are asked to demonstrate the need and to make the case for such legislation, I think the same burden of proof applies to those that want to bring forward legislation," McKoon said.

But Nigut questioned the need for McKoon's litmus test on discrimination to demonstrate that LGBT protections are needed. 

"You have a burden of proof to meet. You have to show there's a problem you're addressing," McKoon said.
 
Galloway interrupted. 

"So you are sitting here and you are telling me that if you are gay in Georgia you don't face discrimination," Galloway asked McKoon.

McKoon didn't directly respond, but cited a single example of LGBT discrimination at a metro Atlanta print shop as the only case he's aware of. Then he charged that LGBT advocates are trying to blackmail lawmakers.

"The only example I'm aware of that's been publicized had to do with the printing of some wedding invitations by AlphaGraphics and the national corporation stepped in within 24 hours and provided it for free," McKoon said. 

"The whole problem with this is that the opposition, who has been unable to pass unrelated legislation for years, is trying to blackmail those of us that want to pass a bill that's been adopted in 31 states, that this governor voted for in 1993 and say that the only way you're going to get that is if you agree to pass unrelated legislation," McKoon added.

That's where McKoon again distorted the legislation that Deal vetoed. He pitched it as a mirror of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act when in fact the bill that Deal vetoed in March was much broader and went far beyond the federal law to allow religious organizations to discriminate against LGBT people and threatened to gut local non-discrimination ordinances. 

And the legislation LGBT and progressive activists want to pass isn't unrelated to McKoon's "religious freedom" law. It's directly in response to it – a Republican lawmaker even proposed a statewide public accommodations law, but fellow GOP lawmakers stopped efforts to including LGBT people in it. Another bill, from state Rep. Karla Drenner, would protect LGBT state employees from discrimination. Lawmakers have failed to act on it – despite bipartisan support. And earlier this year, a Republican who proposed legislation to protect state employees from discrimination tanked his own bill after a Senate committee added protections for LGBT workers. 

'This bill about extending middle finger to LGBT community'

 

Robinson was blunt in rejecting McKoon's legislation.

"This bill is not about extending rights to people of faith. It is about extending the middle finger to the Supreme Court and the LGBT community," Robinson said. 

"That's absurd," McKoon quipped. "These bills have been around since 1993."

Again, McKoon's statement is misleading. The bill that lawmakers passed in March went far beyond the provisions of the federal RFRA legislation despite McKoon's statements otherwise. 

During the debate, McKoon also repeated his assertion that lawmakers may respond to recent federal guidelines concerning transgender students with legislation next year. The Obama administration issued the sweeping guidelines in May, calling for schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. The guidelines set off potty wars in Georgia and were roundly denounced. The state also joined 10 others in filing a federal lawsuit to block the guidelines.

"I think the answer is in how the litigation that has been initiated by the state of Texas and of course Georgia plays out," McKoon said. "If the states win, then I don't think you'll see any legislation at all."

But if the states lose or the lawsuit is ongoing when lawmakers return in January, McKoon said, "then I think certainly someone is going to bring a bill forward on that."

McKoon again threatened to propose a bill that would punish school districts that implement the federal guidelines if a student is victimized by "somebody that can come to school, say I feel like a woman today and therefore I must be admitted to the women's locker room and the women's showers."

Robinson chided McKoon and other opponents of the transgender guidelines for their transphobic rhetoric and fear mongering in arguing against the guidelines.

"It can't always be about adult perverts in the bathroom with kids because there's really not examples of that happening and if it did, that's illegal and we should pound the people into the ground," Robinson said.

Listen to the full debate on "Political Rewind."

[second photo via]