Pastors and rabbis, anti-gay lawmakers, LGBT activists and even gay Republicans squared off in the Georgia Capitol on Tuesday over several "religious freedom" bills dominating the legislative session.
It was a scene weeks in the making as lawmakers continue to file one anti-gay bill after the other since lawmakers returned to work in mid January. Supporters of the "religious freedom" bills argue that their Christian beliefs are under attack; LGBT activists and progressives counter the measures are a reaction to gay marriage and will open the door to anti-gay bigotry and gut non-discrimination ordinances across the state.
On Tuesday, Southern Baptists capped their Pastor's Day at the Capitol with a press conference to thank lawmakers for their "religious freedom" legislation. Opponents quickly followed with a group of LGBT and progressive faith leaders who denounced the bills. After that, Georgia Republicans for the Future, a collection of LGBT and gay-friendly Republicans, also spoke out against the legislation.
The conservative pastors from the Georgia Baptist Convention and Georgia Baptist Mission worked to assuage criticism that the legislation would open the door to anti-gay discrimination. In fact J. Robert White, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, said it's Christians in the state who face discrimination.
"We need to take a stand for religious freedom now, take it boldly, take it strongly," White said (top photo left). "Christians aren't going to discriminate against the LGBT community. We have no desire to discriminate against anyone. The concern that I have is that the people of faith in Georgia are being discriminated against and that needs to stop. I believe the Religious Freedom Restoration Act does that."
White was referring to the "religious freedom" bill from state Sen. Josh McKoon. The measure has roiled the Capitol for three years and is stuck in a House committee. But the conservative religious leaders also thanked lawmakers behind at least six other "religious freedom" bills proposed in the last few weeks, including state Sen. Greg Kirk and state Rep. Ed Setzler.
Kirk's First Amendment Defense Act of Georgia would allow religious organizations and businesses to opt out of serving gay couples and non-discrimination ordinances in 60 jurisdictions around the state. The legislation would also allow religious organizations involved in adoptions to discriminate against LGBT couples. The bill received a surprise hearing on Monday. Setlzer's Religious Freedom Restoration Act is similar to McKoon's proposal.
"In our schools, we are lacking a whole lotta faith, a whole lotta hope and a whole lotta love," said Justin Rich, a pastor at Villa Rica First Baptist Church. "We have to fight as Georgians for our religious freedoms."
Mike Griffin (top photo right), a pastor and lobbyist for the Georgia Baptist Convention, urged lawmakers to pass the RFRA legislation – at a minimum.
"We support the most broad-based legislation that protects the rights of people of faith," Griffin said. "All these other pieces of legislation have merit. But RFRA would be at least the minimum we have to do. We try to speak the truth with love. And we feel Christians are being suppressed from speaking that."
'Sending a bazooka after a fly'
When supporters of the "religious freedom" bills walked away from the lectern on the second floor of the Capitol, LGBT and progressive faith leaders stepped in.
"This legislation is like sending a bazooka after a fly," said Joshua Heller, president of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association and rabbi of Congregation B'nai Torah.
Josh Noblitt (second photo), a gay pastor from St. Mark United Methodist Church who is running for the Georgia House, said the bills are "bad for business" and called on lawmakers to pass a comprehensive, LGBT-inclusive civil rights bill. State Rep. Rich Golick proposed the Georgia Civil Rights in Public Accommodations Act last week, but it does not include LGBT protections.
"We want to pass comprehensive civil rights legislation and say no to discrimination," Noblitt said.
Joshua Lesser, a gay rabbi who leads Congregation Bet Haverim, said the series of bills promotes a single faith.
"These bills are not about religious freedom, they are a gateway to bigotry," Lesser said. "We are giving people a license to discriminate and express their sense of religious supremacy and oppression."
'Divisive legislation hurts Republican Party'
And when the group of faith leaders – which also included Rebecca Stapel-Wax, executive director of Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender & Sexual Diversity, and Rev. David Lewicki of North Decatur Presbyterian Church – stepped aside, gay and gay-friendly Republicans took over.
Allen Fox (third photo), a gay Republican and director of Georgia Republicans for the Future, said religious freedom is protected in the state and U.S. Constitutions and pushing these bills hurts the GOP from expanding its base and attracting LGBT-friendly millennials to the party.
"Divisive religious freedom legislation hurts our brand as the Republican Party," Fox said. "It keeps us form growing our party and expanding our tent to win elections. The perception of discrimination hurts all of us as Republicans."
Ronald Cato, who is gay and chair of the College Republicans at Georgia State, said the party must be more inclusive of LBGT people and minorities.
"You can still make it to heaven and treat everyone equally," Cato said.
The back-to-back press conferences were a replay of a year ago inside the Capitol, though conservative religious activists avoided the heated rhetoric of their 2015 event. That's when Gerald Harris, editor of the Christian Index, called on supporters to engage in battle and urged them to the same civil disobedience used during the Civil Rights Movement to help Christians "win this war" over the current legislation.
"We are here today because we want to sound an alarm," Harris said at the January 2015 event. "There is a war that is going on. It is a war on religious liberty and it appears to me that those who are targeted are not the Muslims, nor the Hindus, nor the Jesuits, nor the Buddhists. But it seems in particular that it's the Christians."
Harris attended Tuesday's event but did not speak.