Supporters of anti-LGBT "religious freedom" legislation rallied at the State Capitol on Tuesday, re-igniting a years-long contentious fight by calling on lawmakers to pass their bill.
The effort, hosted by the Faith & Freedom Coalition, was part of the organization's Religious Freedom Day activities across the country. Supporters of the legislation said it wouldn't discriminate or damage the state's economy – arguments from opponents that have helped stall the legislation in past years and earn it a veto from Gov. Nathan Deal in 2016.
The event on Tuesday included several prominent supporters of "religious freedom" legislation and other anti-LGBT efforts, including Virginia Galloway (top photo), a regional director for the Faith & Freedom Coalition; Mike Griffin, a lobbyist for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board; conservative cheerleader Tanya Ditty; Santorum spreader Kay Godwin; Rev. Garland Hunt; Jane Robbins, who has described past "religious freedom" legislation as "a tolerance bill"; and state Sen. Josh McKoon, the face of the "religious freedom" battle who is running for Georgia Secretary of State.
They called on lawmakers to pass Senate Bill 233, which is "religious freedom" legislation that Sen. Marty Harbin introduced last year. The bill stalled as Republican leaders in state government helped sideline it.
“People should be able to live out their faith without interference from the government. It's really pretty simple when you think about it,” said Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus. “This debate is not going away until the Legislature and the governor do the right thing and protect this common-sense civil liberty."
Hunt – who in 2016 blasted Deal for vetoing anti-LGBT legislation by declaring that "God is not going to be vetoed in our state" – said people of faith are facing discrimination and the legislation would address that. Via the AJC:
“We are fighting in this state to prevent the government from denying our First Amendment rights,” said Garland Hunt, senior pastor of The Father’s House in Peachtree Corners. “We renounce discrimination of the people of faith in this state.”
Brant Frost, chair of Coweta County GOP who also attended Tuesday's press conference, has said lawmakers can't avoid the issue. Via the AJC:
“It’s not going away,” said Brant Frost V, a Newnan activist who sees it as a way to safeguard evangelical Christian business owners from legal action if they refuse to sell to customers based on their religious beliefs.
“We’re going to keep fighting as long as they keep making unprovoked attacks against us,” said Frost, the chairman of the Coweta County GOP. “We’re going to keep fighting back.”
'Ignore the fear mongering'
Harbin (second photo) said earlier this month that he's itching for a fight over the legislation and dismissed concerns from business leaders and state officials that the contentious bill would impact the state's pursuit of Amazon's HQ2. Via the AJC:
“While it is a bit early to speculate on where the second headquarters will be built, I am willing to make a bold prediction: Amazon will accept RFRA whether they like it or not,” he said.
Harbin cited other states with similar legislation, including several that have top contenders for the $5 billion project. They include Amazon’s current home state of Washington, where a court decision has approved RFRA-like provisions.
“Ignore the fear mongering. Georgians deserve the same First Amendment religious protections Amazon currently enjoys in the state of Washington,” he said.
Republican leaders at the State Capitol made it clear ahead of the legislative session that they don't want a fight over "religious freedom" legislation. They fear it could harm the state's reputation, damage chances of landing HQ2 and impact a film industry that generates $9.5 billion a year in Georgia.
House Speaker David Ralston, citing fallout in other states during "religious freedom" battles, said revisiting the issue is "not very productive."
Ralston has also said the legislation is not among his priorities for the 2018 session. Via the AJC:
“We’ve been really busy in the House since last session looking at ways we can take this success, this economic climate, all over Georgia," he said, citing a transit study effort and economic development efforts in rural Georgia. "We have an awful lot of work to do. So I haven’t really thought about that."
And again during an interview with WABE:
On whether state lawmakers will consider ‘religious liberty’ legislation
My view now is let’s move forward. This is a big, diverse state, and I frankly don’t plan to spend a lot of time on that issue as we go into this next session.
On whether a debate about ‘religious freedom’ legislation would hurt Georgia’s efforts to attract business
Well, I think you look at other states that have had this debate. North Carolina comes to mind. Indiana comes to mind. The debate has not gone well in those states, to say the least. My focus has been and is on growing economic opportunity for every part of Georgia. And to the extent that any debate … it creates headwinds for that, then I don’t have any interest in doing that frankly.
A top aide to Deal has warned lawmakers away from the legislation.
Prominent Republican lawmakers have also spoken out against a revival of "religious freedom" legislation.
State Sen. Fran Millar, who voted for sweeping anti-LGBT legislation in 2016 and has cheered similar measures in other states, said a "religious freedom" bill is "dead on arrival" this year. Via Reporter Newspapers:
Millar, who voted in favor of the bill in 2016, said he would not support a “religious freedom” bill this year, calling such a bill “DOA [dead on arrival].”
“I think it’s a Republican primary issue. That’s about as far as it will go,” he said. “I don’t see it going anywhere in Georgia this year. The governor made the right decision.”
“I think it’s going to be a very short session. I don’t think these complicated issues are going to have time to get resolved. We are in the business of running the state of Georgia and doing it to the best of our ability, to put Georgia at the forefront.
“We’re No. 1 in the nation for site development. We’ve been that way for five years now. We’re very proud of our record. Are we going to derail that record on one specific issue? The answer is no. I’m not going to. I don’t think the leadership is going to.”
But Galloway said the push for "religious freedom" legislative could benefit from election year pressure. Via the AJC:
“We’re not going away. We’re not going to say, ‘Oh darn, we lost our religious freedoms,’” said Virginia Galloway, a lobbyist for the Faith & Freedom Coalition. “This could be one of the issues that’s magnified in an election year.”
Four Republican candidates have signed pledges that, if elected, they would sign "religious freedom" legislation. One of the those candidates – Secretary of State Brian Kemp – has called the measure part of "real solutions to real challenges that face local families, businesses, and organizations."
A fifth GOP candidate for governor, Clay Tippins, refused to sign the pledge.
'Don't allow discrimination to be written into law'
Progressive lawmakers and LGBT advocates are prepared to again fight the legislation.
"All legislative sessions are really important but you know this one is the start of an election year that is going to be highly contentious, an election year that holds a lot of promise for change both good as well as bad," Jeff Graham (photo), executive director of Georgia Equality, said during a recent episode of Podcast Q.
"So we need to be focused on making sure that we have the best defense possible when the next iteration of religious liberty, religious exemption bill, comes before us – making sure that we don't allow discrimination to be written into the law in any piece of legislation," he added.
Opponents of the legislation got an assist Tuesday as metro Atlanta business leaders made it clear the legislation would hurt the state's economy and Georgia's chances of attracting Amazon's new headquarters.
Katie Kirkpatrick, chief policy officer for the Metro Atlanta Chamber, and David Raynor, senior vice president of public affairs for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, pointed to Deal's veto of similar legislation in 2016 and said nothing has changed since.
"Gov. Deal clearly stated in his veto statement in 2016 why this type of legislation was already a constitutional right, unnecessary and would distract from our strong performance in creating new jobs in our state," Kirkpatrick and Raynor said in a joint statement.
"While there's no new evidence to suggest this legislation is needed to strengthen a right guaranteed by our constitution, there is plentiful data other states have suffered and will continue to suffer long-term economic harm for enacting a law that many see as discriminatory. We will keep our focus on issues such as workforce development, transportation and education that attract good jobs and improve the quality of life for Georgia families," they said.