State Sen. Josh McKoon launched his push for "religious freedom" legislation on Tuesday, ignoring past calls for LGBT protections as he tries for the fourth consecutive year to pass his bill.
McKoon took to the well of the Senate on Tuesday – just the second day of the 2017 legislative session – to use the story of a Muslim student at Georgia State University to lobby lawmakers to pass a "religious freedom" bill. Last year, the measure morphed into a sweeping anti-LBGT measure that generated national controversy and a veto from Gov. Nathan Deal.
On Tuesday, McKoon said Georgia "is better than that."
"It is certainly my hope that this will be the year that we will pass basic, fundamental protections of the right of free exercise here in Georgia as 31 other states have seen fit to do and as has been done at the federal level for now for 24 years," McKoon said.
McKoon cited the experience of Nabila Khan, a first-year student at GSU. Kahn said in September that a professor asked her to remove her niqab – a veil that covers all but her eyes – when she attended class. The professor cited the state's anti-mask law, a 1950s measure meant to combat KKK members from concealing their identities.
Khan refused, according to the Signal, and the professor backed down after GSU and the University System of Georgia said veils are allowed on campuses as part of religious practices, according to the AJC.
McKoon said Tuesday that his "religious freedom" legislation would provide additional remedies for Khan and others if they felt they were being persecuted for their religious beliefs. (Nevermind that Khan's issue was quickly resolved without a lawsuit.) McKoon also took a swipe at LGBT and progressive opponents of his legislation who have cited how it could open the door to anti-LGBT discrimination and gut non-discrimination ordinances in municipalities across the state.
"For those that say that we do not have a problem with the government repressing people of faith and being able to exercise their faith the way they choose, this is an uncomfortable example because it is an example that does not fit the false narrative that has been pushed by opponents of religious freedom legislation," McKoon said.
It's an interesting example for McKoon to cite to bolster his case for "religious freedom" legislation. In September, he said he wasn't certain that the legislation would have helped Kahn. Via the Signal:
“My bill, Senate Bill 129, would have mandated a heightened standard of review in the case you mentioned, and while I cannot state with certainty the student would have prevailed, she would have been given stronger legal ground upon which to make a challenge,” he said.
And McKoon resisted calls to amend the state's anti-mask law with a religious exemption that would include veils. McKoon has also repeatedly rejected calls to add LGBT protections to his "religious freedom" legislation.
McKoon has not yet introduced a "religious freedom" bill in the new session. His path to moving such a bill has grown more complicated. On Monday, he was formally stripped of his chairmanship of a Senate Judiciary Committee when the panel was abolished. McKoon has routed his legislation through that committee in the past.
Last week, House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle rejected the legislation and said it was not among their priorities for the 2017 session. Georgia voters aren't interested in it, either.
“I’m coordinating with the House members and Senate members to see who’s going to introduce legislation and see where everyone is on it,” said state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, who has become the most public face of the effort over the past three years. “You’ll see religious freedom bills introduced in both chambers.”
McKoon has used legislative tricks to push his legislation forward, misconstrued poll numbers to support his case and flatly denied that it's an anti-LGBT bill. He's even taken exception to being labeled anti-gay after attacking LGBT groups, calling the medical needs of transgender military members "absurd," questioning whether anti-LGBT discrimination exists and refusing to add LGBT protections to his legislation. Via the AJC:
The fight over the North Carolina law has galvanized LGBTQ advocates, including those in Georgia.
Religious liberty proponents here, however, said it was not a defining moment for them. And they said it was wrong to read their push as anti-gay or as being disrespectful or discriminatory to the LGBTQ community.
“I couldn’t disagree with that more strongly,” state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, said of being called anti-gay.
As he urged fellow senators to support a "religious freedom" bill, McKoon on Tuesday said people of faith like Kahn are under attack in Georgia.
"I may not look like Ms. Kahn, we may not share the same faith tradition but we rise and fall on the same legal protections in the Constitution, the same legal standard under Georgia law," McKoon said.
"A government that can tell Ms. Kahn not to honor her faith tradition in a lecture hall at a public college or university can do the same thing to a Christian, the same thing to a Jew, the same thing to someone of any faith tradition. When we talk about Georgia being a welcoming and inclusive state, I wonder are we telling people the story of Ms. Kahn? Are we telling people the kind of thing that goes on," he added.