Anti-LGBTQ ‘religious freedom’ bill stalls in state Senate committee

The chances of an anti-LGBTQ “religious freedom” bill passing this year dimmed as the bill’s sponsor delayed a scheduled hearing at the last minute.

State Sen. Marty Harbin, a Republican from Tyrone, asked for the delay after being called to introduce the bill at a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on Monday.

“Today, due to time constraints and my desire to be certain that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is properly vetted in the committee process, our first preliminary hearing has been temporarily postponed at my request,” Harbin (top photo) said in a press release following the hearing.

Senate Bill 221 mirrors the federal version of the “religious freedom” bill signed into law in 1993, plus adds language that allows people who win lawsuits against the government to recover their legal fees. It also allows judges to grant injunctive relief and order declaratory judgments. 

Harbin added that “there is still plenty of time” to pass SB 221 before the session ends. 

Thursday is Crossover Day, the day by which legislation must pass in one chamber of the legislature to remain active. But this is the first year in a two-year legislative cycle, so Harbin’s bill would carry over into the 2020 session if it doesn’t pass this year. It could also be attached to other legislation as an amendment after Crossover Day, a legislative maneuver conservative lawmakers have used in the past with anti-LGBTQ measures.

Mike Griffin, a lobbyist for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, was “disappointed” by the results of the hearing.

“We were expecting a lot more movement on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act this year,” he told reporters after the committee meeting on Monday. “But we’re thankful for Sen. Harbin. We’re thankful for the fact that RFRA has been introduced.”

Griffin held out hope that the bill could pass this year.

“I’ve been down here 12 years and I know that nothing’s over till it’s over. And it’s not over till April 2,” he said, referencing the final day of this year’s session.

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said that while he was “relieved,” opponents of the bill should continue to follow it closely.

“The Judiciary Committee is currently scheduled to meet this coming Wednesday and we could see the bill return at that time,” Graham said in a statement. “We also know that sponsors of RFRA in the past have resorted to using legislative shenanigans in an attempt to have the language added to other bills.  We expect to see such tactics used again this year.”

“I'd also like to thank the strong showing of allies, clergy and members of the LGBT community who came out for today's hearing with little notice. Clearly many groups and organizations are troubled by the reintroduction of RFRA,” he added.

Harbin filed SB 221 on Feb. 27 and it was fast-tracked – scheduled for a hearing just five days later – before the hearing was delayed on Monday. The bill immediately drew the ire of Georgia Equality, progressive faith leaders and the ACLU of Georgia.

Gov. Brian Kemp has vowed to sign a “religious freedom” bill into law that mirrors the federal version. But, House Speaker David Ralston said that the bills are "a solution in search of a problem" and that they could "tear at the fabric of the state."

LGBTQ groups and business groups in Georgia have come out against anti-LGBTQ “religious freedom” bills since they were first introduced in 2014.

Additional reporting by Ari Bee