Two key players on opposite sides of a controversial "religious freedom" bill tangled during a forum on Wednesday, hinting at the debate to come when the legislation surfaces again during the legislative session that opens next week. 

"These RFRAs are being put out as a vehicle to discriminate against us now as well as in the future," said Jeff Graham (second photo), executive director of Georgia Equality and a key figure in opposing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act from state Sen. Josh McKoon (top photo).

"This is an active area of advocacy for folks that don't believe that LGBT people are deserving of equal rights. We believe that RFRA is the first shot across the bow here in Georgia," he added. "It's a backlash against our Constitutional rights that we won with marriage last year. That's why the LGBT community is concerned about this."

But McKoon, two seats away from Graham during the debate, countered that his legislation – under consideration by state lawmakers for the third consecutive year – offers "modest protections" for people of faith and includes language that "government has a fundamental overriding interest in eradicating discrimination."

"It is hard to believe that a judge finding that discrimination would be authorized under RFRA. It is not a get out of jail free card for people of faith," McKoon said.

"The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the language that was passed in the state Senate earlier this year, is probably the most vetted legislation that the Georgia legislature has ever considered. We know what this bill is going to do. This bill is going to provide modest protections for people of faith," he added.

The debate between Graham and McKoon – along with Alexander Volokh, an associate professor at Emory University School of Law, and state Rep. Taylor Bennett, a Democrat recently elected who opposes the bill – came during a forum held by the Georgia chapter of the American Constitution Society for Law & Policy. Bondurant Mixson & Elmore hosted the event in its glitzy 32nd floor law offices in Midtown.

The bill passed the state Senate last year before stalling in the House after progressive lawmakers successfully tacked on LGBT protections. McKoon has strongly objected to adding that language, arguing that it would gut the intent of the measure. After his second consecutive defeat, McKoon vowed to bring the legislation back this year when lawmakers return next week. The debate over the bill prompted protests, rallies and an internal squabble among Republicans who wanted to add LGBT protections to the measure and religious conservatives who didn't.

McKoon again argued on Wednesday that RFRA would not open the door to anti-gay discrimination and swatted down challenges by critics that said the measure would hurt the state's reputation, economy and hospitality industry if it became law. Business and hospitality groups have criticized the measure and warned it could negatively impact the state's economy and could cost Atlanta the ability to host major sporting events.

"The evidence that is actually out there does not suggest that there will be any reputational damage at all," McKoon said. "It is laughable that it is going to have any reputational impact on our state."

'I am afraid of the hatred that spews out there'

 

Graham pointed out that it's already legal in Georgia to discriminate against LGBT people, something RFRA won't change, but that he is suspicious of the motives of the anti-gay groups that back the bill and anti-gay supporters that have flocked to McKoon's side.

"I agree that the LGBT community does not have protections. They don't need a RFRA to discriminate," Graham said. "I am afraid of the process. I am afraid of the hatred that spews out there. I don't accuse Sen. McKoon of hatred, but the other organizations that have been backing this bill, I do know they do not want me to have the same legal protections that others have. That is the political process that scares me."

McKoon has attacked Georgia Equality and opponents of the bill, including Delta Air Lines and Mayor Kasim Reed, and has ties to an anti-gay pastor. Anti-gay groups and faith leaders have joined with McKoon to try and pass the legislation. McKoon has also complained that "discrimination" and "civil rights" are "very elastic terms."

McKoon's response to being surrounded by anti-gay supporters? He demurred, offering again that RFRA "is a very modest protection of free exercise." McKoon also declined to say if he supports a new proposal from state Sen. Greg Kirk that would offer protections to public officials who refuse to recognize the legality of gay marriages.

Graham countered that lawmakers should instead propose a comprehensive civil rights bill that would protect LGBT people, people of faith and other minority groups.

The standing room only audience included state Sen. Vincent Fort, an LGBT ally who fought McKoon's RFRA, and Jason Carter, the gay-friendly former state senator who ran for governor in 2014. Also attending were two gay candidates for the state House – Josh Noblitt in District 59 and Bob Gibeling, who is again seeking the District 54 seat after losing the race in 2014.