A relatively quiet year for anti-LGBTQ legislation was upended on Wednesday when an anti-LGBTQ “religious freedom” bill was introduced in the Georgia Senate.
State Sen. Marty Harbin (top photo), a Republican from Tyrone who sponsored the legislation, also sponsored a similar bill in 2017.
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 judgements.
Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said the bill “would send our state in the wrong direction.”
“Here we go again: extremist lawmakers seem prepared to put us in a negative national spotlight yet again, risking Georgia’s economic reputation and putting LGBT people in harm’s way,” Graham said in a press release. “The freedom for religion is important to all of us, including LGBT people. The idea that treating people fairly and equally under the law somehow erodes religious freedom is, frankly, false.”
Graham also called on the legislature to pass a comprehensive civil rights law “rather than spend yet another year gridlocking over discriminatory measures that would harm our state.”
State Rep. Sandra Scott, a Democrat from Rex, filed a broad LGBTQ-inclusive civil rights bill in January. It's assigned to the Judiciary Committee but has yet to receive a hearing.
Rabbi Peter Berg of The Temple in Midtown Atlanta said freedom of religion is protected in the First Amendment.
“But year after year, we have seen divisive, dangerous bills that increase the risk that religious freedom will be used to justify harm and discrimination,” he said in a press release. “It's wrong, and it's time to move on.”
LGBTQ groups and the business community in Georgia have come out against anti-LGBTQ “religious freedom” bills since they were first introduced in 2014.
Graham said SB 221 will threaten the state’s tourism industry and Georgia’s bid to host the 2026 World Cup.
“It is shameful that some Georgia lawmakers continue to target LGBT people, recklessly ignoring the economic consequences,” he said. “At a moment when states are struggling to maintain a competitive edge, Georgia lawmakers should be doing everything in their power to send the message that Georgia is truly open for business to all.”
“It is imperative that Georgia lawmakers reject discriminatory legislation and embrace fully inclusive nondiscrimination protections that ensure liberty and justice for all,” he added.
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."
SB 221’s co-sponsors are all Republicans: Bill Heath of Bremen, William Ligon of Brunswick, Bruce Thompson of White, Greg Kirk of Americus, Chuck Payne of Dalton, Matt Brass of Newnan, Ellis Black of Valdosta, Jesse Stone of Waynesboro and John Wilkinson of Toccoa.
Ligon and Kirk have sponsored anti-LGBTQ “religious freedom” legislation in the past.