The Georgia Senate easily approved a controversial "religious freedom" bill on Thursday that LGBT critics and faith leaders have derided as an anti-gay effort to allow discrimination. 

State Sen. Josh McKoon's bill, S.B. 129 – the "Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act" or RFRA – passed 37-15 after nearly 90 minutes of debate. Earlier Thursday, the Senate approved a ban on amendments to the legislation.

McKoon (top photo) spoke for nearly 30 minutes, defending his legislation against critics that he dismissed as "the professional left" who have contempt "for the people of this state."

"It's a simple, modest, common sense protection for people of faith, people of every faith," McKoon said. "When we have strong religious liberty, what goes along with that is tolerance for people of every faith and people with no faith at all."

McKoon also said the LGBT critics of the legislation failed to cite a case in which similar legislation in other states has resulted in anti-gay discrimination.

"This law has been tested. The parade of horribles that we've had to hear about for a year have never manifested themselves," McKoon said.

State Sen. Elena Parent, a Democrat who represents a gay-popular district in Decatur, said she viewed the legislation as a distraction. Parent also said that similar "religious freedom" bills are being passed in states in increasing numbers as a reaction to gay marriage sweeping across the country.

Sen. Curt Thompson, a Gwinnett Democrat, agreed.

"There is no need for this legislation unless the need is for political cover," Thompson said. "This is an unnecessary law. It is more about politics than policy."

Thompson also pointed to the debate over gay marriage in Alabama. When a federal judge struck down the state's marriage ban, probate judges across the state refused to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. This week, the Alabama Supreme Court called on probate judges to uphold the state's gay marriage ban.

"We don't want to be the next Alabama and the circus they are becoming," Thompson said. 

'This is a not a vehicle for discrimination'

 

State Sen. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Democrat and staunch LGBT ally, said the legislation is being used as horse-trading among lawmakers seeking favorable votes on other matters.

"It's been stopped time and again and sadly, may move forward amidst all the last-minute deal making in the waning days of the session not because it's good legislation but perhaps it secures the votes of someone," Orrock said.

And as gay marriage continues to become law in more states, Orrock hinted that the "religious freedom" bill is a reaction to help legalize discrimination against LGBT couples.

"This law is an effort to create more legal tools for people to carve out why they should be excepted from following our laws, rules and regulations," she said.

As debate over the legislation opened on Thursday morning, state Sen. Vincent Fort – a pro-gay Democrat who helped stall McKoon's bill last month – led a brief floor skirmish over McKoon's move to engross the bill, which would prevent amendments. 

Fort (second photo) said he wanted to propose an amendment as a way to "perfect" the legislation.

"I had an amendment prepared because the author and others who support this bill say there is nothing in it which would discriminate against anyone at any time at any place," Fort said. "If that's the truth, if that's what you feel, if that's what's in your heart, then you ought to allow an amendment that says just that – no discrimination against any of our fellow citizens, no discrimination against anyone any of God's children."

"It would be a sorry day if this bill were to pass," Fort said during debate later on Thursday.

Sen. Bill Cowsert, the Senate Majority Leader, denied that the legislation would pave the way for anti-gay discrimination. 

"This bill is not a distraction," he said. "This is a not a vehicle for discrimination. This bill does not gut any protections for the LGBT community."

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last month, Cowsert offered an amendment to clarify that the bill wouldn't be used as a tool of anti-gay discrimination. But McKoon blocked it and Cowsert later relented. He said Thursday that the legislation makes it clear that the state has a "compelling interest in eradicating discrimination."

He also said the legislation would not provide legal cover for probate judges in the state to decide against issuing marriage licenses to gay couples if gay marriage becomes legal in Georgia. 

"There is nothing in this bill that will deny the equal protection laws to all people," Cowsert said. "I believe this bill strikes the right balance."

 

Quick, nasty road to approval

 

Fort's efforts failed and McKoon's motion to prohibit amendments passed 38 to 17 on Thursday morning.

The Senate approval marks a quick resurgence of McKoon's bill, which just two weeks ago was tabled during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. That's when Cowsert tried to amend the bill, failed and then moved to table it.  A similar measure from state Rep. Sam Teasley remains stalled in the House.

On Monday, McKoon quietly slipped his bill back in front of the committee, which he chairs, without any of the panel's Democrats present. The vote came as Fort stepped out for a potty break.

On Thursday, Fort criticized the political shenanigans as part of a "hurry up fiasco" legislative process around the bill.

"Nature called, I left the room and when I came back in the room, gone. The bill was gone," Fort said. "I won't say I'm incensed, I am very disturbed."

Thompson also criticized the hearing.

"A committee meeting was called so fast that I couldn't walk over," he said. "That's not a way to pass a bill, even if you have the votes. That's not the way to run a committee."

McKoon has dismissed critics who say the bill would open the door to anti-gay discrimination, including faith leaders and Republican former Georgia Attorney General Michael Bowers. Last month, Bowers – who fought LGBT issues during four terms as attorney general – called the "religious freedom" bills "ill-conceived, unnecessary and mean-spirited." Yet McKoon balked at Cowsert's amendment to address that and has refused any efforts to include language in the bill to address LGBT protections. His supporters are a collection of anti-gay religious groups who have spoken out against gay marriage and LGBT issues during rallies for the legislation.

Throughout the debate, McKoon has pushed back with a flurry of tweets.

The debate this session has also taken a nasty, personal tone – sometimes even a little nutty. Opponents of the bill alleged that McKoon and Teasley wanted to give legal protections for men to beat their wives and abuse children. Supporters called for a religious war and quipped that their supporters were absurd. And lawmakers heard from Rev. Bryant Wright, senior pastor at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, who denounced gays and called for the "religious freedom" legislation as a way to battle "erotic liberty."

Supporters of McKoon's bill also hit back at Delta, whose CEO Richard Anderson came out swinging against the legislation in 2014. This year, Republicans swatted at the CEO and his Atlanta-based company by targeting a lucrative fuel tax break that saves Delta about $23 million a year.

State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, a Republican with a lengthy anti-gay track record, has led the push to end the 10-year-old tax break on aviation fuel.

Via the AJC:

Oh, but there’s so much more to this rarest of moves – an overt assault on a state’s largest private employer. And much of it has to do with Delta’s recent history, under CEO Richard Anderson, of weighing in on public affairs – on both a state and national level.

“Every time he opens his mouth, he makes my job easy,” Ehrhart contends.

Last year, Delta was one of the major corporate players that helped kill a pair of “religious liberty” bills, out of concern that they would result in discrimination against gays and lesbians. Delta opposes this year’s crop of liberty bills, too, though with the transportation bill in play, the company’s profile has been lower.

After the vote DuBose Porter, chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia, criticized the legislation.

“Today’s actions by Senate Republicans are truly disappointing. We are living in the year 2015 and so much progress has been made across the nation, yet a few politicians in Georgia want to turn back the clock on civil rights in the name of religious freedom. Religious beliefs and equal rights for all Georgians can exist in symmetry without government intrusion. This bill is unnecessary and I urge members of the State House to reject such a dangerous piece of legislation that will set Georgia back for decades.”