A Georgia lawmaker defended his anti-gay “religious freedom” legislation against charges that it would provide a license to discriminate against LGBT people during a crowded hearing at the State Capitol on Tuesday.

“I want to be clear about this. Senate Bill 129 would, like the federal counterpart, it does not provide any new right to people of faith to deny rights to any person,” state Sen. Josh McKoon said. “There is simply no evidence of that occurring anywhere where this law is already in place.”

McKoon was the first to testify during a crowded, nearly three-hour hearing before the House Judiciary (Civil) Special Subcommittee on Tuesday. The panel heard several witnesses advocating for and against the legislation before adjourning without taking a vote. Willard said the panel may reconvene on Wednesday to consider the bill.

Prior to the hearing, dozens of people, including several reporters and photographers, filled a hallway outside the small hearing room adjacent to the offices of state Rep. Wendell Willard, the Republican who chairs the committee, prior to the start of the session.

But for the second time during a hearing on a contentious LGBT proposal, Willard (top photo) used Georgia State Patrol troopers to limit media access to the hearing and prohibited anyone from standing inside. Troopers escorted several people scheduled to testify on both sides of McKoon’s proposal into the room and then closed the doors. They allowed a photographer for the Associated Press in when he protested, but would not allow other members of the media into the room. Troopers referred them to two overflow rooms to watch the proceedings on closed circuit television. 
 
During a hearing in 2012, Willard banned media from taking photos or video during a hearing for a proposal from state Rep. Karla Drenner, one of three openly gay members of the legislature, that would ban discrimination against LGBT state employees. Troopers ordered media outlets, including Project Q Atlanta, to stop using a camera or recording equipment during the session.

Willard, a Republican, was a co-sponsor of that pro-gay legislation, as well as a similar measure introduced by Drenner during this legislative session.

Tuesday’s hearing marked the second one for McKoon’s legislation. He chaired a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill in February. His bill stalled when a fellow Republican offered an amendment addressing concerns about discrimination. But on March 2, McKoon quietly passed his bill in an unscheduled vote that surprised Democrats on the committee. Three days later, it easily passed the state Senate.

'That is not how this works'

 

McKoon stressed that his proposal would not make it easier for people of faith to discriminate against LGBT people, a chief concern aired by LGBT and progressive activists fighting the bill.

“Opponents have characterized this bill as almost a way of a person of faith to press a button and get an exemption form the law. That it not how this works,” McKoon said.

McKoon also defended the legislation during questions from the subcommittee. But the lawmaker did not address his close ties to an anti-gay ministry in his Columbus district. Those ties were detailed on Monday by the Georgia Voice.

State Rep. Roger Bruce, an Atlanta Democrat, questioned the need for McKoon’s bill given the protections offered in the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed in 1993.

“You talked a lot of lawyer stuff now,” Bruce said to McKoon (second photo). “I’m trying to find a practical application for the bill.”

Bruce expressed concern that business owners, once armed with McKoon’s bill if it becomes law, would allow them to deny service to LGBT people “based on their lifestyle.”

“Would it not give the owner of that establishment to say that based on my religious belief, I choose not to serve you,” Bruce asked.

“No it would not,” McKoon said.

“That is where the challenge comes in. It appears that’s what the bill would do,” Fleming shot back.

But Rep. Barry Fleming lauded McKoon for the bill and for enduring attacks “from all various corners for doing this.”

“This is the most important bill that I will ever vote on being here,” Fleming said. “It goes to the fundamental reason that this country was founded.”

Mike Griffin, a lobbyist for the Georgia Baptist Association – one of several anti-gay religious groups supporting McKoon’s bill – dismissed critics and their “fear mongering” and “religious phobia.”

“It’s almost as if the sky is going to fall,” Griffin said. “I think we need to sit down and do some reasoning. RFRA is designed to be a no brainer. It should not take time to decide. It’s like asking a Baptist preacher if he wants some fried chicken.”

Willard was non-committal, but questioned McKoon why current federal protections aren’t adequate and if the bill provides clear remedies for people of faith who allege they face discrimination. He added that the legislation may need to be modified – “maybe so or maybe not.”

“Over the last numerous days, we’ve received a lot of phone calls to say the least,” Willard said. “We have a need to be sure that what we put in the law has clarity.”

“There may be ways to improve the legislation and that is one of the reasons we have a bicameral body – two ways to look at it,” Willard added.

'I don’t think you need a law'

 

When a pastor from Eatonton, Ga., supporting the bill questioned whether he could continue to reject officiating gay marriages if the Supreme Court legalizes marriage equality this summer, Willard pointed out that McKoon’s legislation wouldn’t offer him any protections.
 
“I don’t think you need a law” to protect your freedom of religion, Willard said.

Former Georgia Attorney General Michael Bowers, a Republican who fought against LGBT issues while in office, called McKoon’s bill an “unmitigated disaster for this state.” Bowers was the first of several people to testify against the bill during the hearing.

“I respectfully believe the bill is an excuse to discriminate,” said Bowers, echoing his fiery denunciation of McKoon’s proposal during a press conference last month. Georgia Equality hired Bowers to provide a legal analysis of the bill.

LGBT legal scholar Anthony Michael Kreis said he’s concerned that that legislation would nullify gay-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances passed by Atlanta and other municipalities across the state.

“My largest concern about this bill is that it will permit free exercise challenges to civil rights laws and ordinances,” Kreis said.

Merwin Peake, a corporate recruiter and brother of state Rep. Allen Peake, said the legislation would give pause to progressive companies that might look to move employees to Georgia. Rep. Allen Peake, a Republican, was a co-sponsor of Rep. Sam Teasley’s “religious freedom” bill in the state House before he tabled it earlier this month.

“I would hate to see a company like Apple not decide to move to Georgia because they feel like their employees would be discriminated against,” Merwin Peake said. “A bill like this would give people a license to discriminate because of their own religious beliefs.”

“Those companies are going to take pause if they think that there is a state law that allows any of their employees to be discriminated against. That’s why this bill is bad for Georgia,” he added.