Former Georgia Attorney General Michael Bowers, a Republican who fought LGBT equality while in office, issued a blistering criticism of two "religious freedom" bills, saying they would open the door to discrimination against gay people and others.
The surprising rebuke from Bowers of the legislation from fellow Republicans – Sen. Josh McKoon's S.B. 129 and state Rep. Sam Teasley's H.B. 218, which was H.B. 29 when it was first filed in December – came during a press conference on Tuesday. Bowers, as expected, didn't hold back. (Watch video below)
“This legislation is not about gay marriage, or contraception, or even so-called 'religious freedom,'" Bowers wrote in his analysis. (Read below) "It is more important than all of these, because it ultimately involves the rule of law. Regardless of whether one agrees with a particular policy, or if it offends one’s religious sensibilities, the proposed [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] is bad for all Georgians of good faith, or for that matter, of any faith whatsoever. It is not just bad public policy; it is ill-conceived, unnecessary, mean-spirited and deserving of a swift death in the General Assembly.”
"The bills are both deserving of a quick death in the General Assembly. That's the conclusion of the evaluation," Bowers said during the press conference, adding that the bills are "nothing but an excuse to discriminate."
In his critique of the legislation, Bowers also said that the "religious freedom" bills send a signal to young people, including gay workers, that Georgia doesn't want you.
"It would send a signal to a lot of bright young people that this is not the place to come, that this is a place closing its mind and doors to bright young people who might otherwise come here because we don't necessarily want gay people to come to Georgia and there are a lot of bright gay people that we need to come here and work here. And that's just dumb, plain dumb," Bowers said.
Georgia Equality hired Bowers to draft the study of the legislation. The gay rights group once held Bowers up as a reason why LGBT people were "criminalized through the entire country."
Bowers, now 73, also said he's a changed person from the state attorney general who successfully defended Georgia’s anti-sodomy law in 1986 against a legal challenge from a gay man and fired a lesbian attorney over her sexual orientation in 1991.
"I hope, I'll leave it to others to judge, that what I did was enforce the law, not discriminate, enforce the law," Bowers said about his anti-gay actions as attorney general. "And I will tell you right up front, I have changed some. There is no question. I'm 73 but I haven't stopped learning and changing. But I hope more than anything else that my record will be for others to judge. I'm not going to stand up here and judge myself. I'm just not going to do it. I'll let you do that. But I hope it will be said that he enforced the law as best he knew how. That's all I can tell you."
When pressed, Bowers said his thoughts on gay couples have changed some, but he wouldn't elaborate on his positions on gay marriage, workplace discrimination or other LGBT issues.
"I'm not the same that I was 30 years ago – absolutely not. I'm a much nicer guy than I used to be," Bowers said.
Bowers said growing older and listening to lawyers in his firm – he's a partner with Balch & Bingham – has in part helped change his views on LGBT issues.
"Having eight grand children, getting older, losing a step or two, trying more cases, having a bunch of partners that have impacted on me and learning more, being married a lot longer – 52 years now. All of those things, just the things that change people. I can't tell you all of that, I don't know. But I know I've changed," Bowers said.
Robin Shahar, the lesbian attorney who Bowers fired in 1991, applauded Georgia Equality working with the former attorney general as a powerful way to help defeat the "religious freedom" bills. Shahar, now chief counsel in city attorney's office and Mayor Kasim Reed's advisor on LGBT issues, sued Bowers over the firing in 1991 and lost.
"From the perspective of Georgia Equality, working with Michael Bowes to defeat this bill is very powerful," Shahar told Project Q Atlanta. "You take a guy like Michael Bowers, who I assume the religious right respects for his anti-gay achievements, when he tells them that RFRA is dangerous and is not a safe way to address their desires to counteract progress in the LGBT movement, that is a whole different level of credibility."
Shahar also said that a gay group partnering with a past foe only helps to advance LGBT equality efforts.
"It is courageous on both of their parts. The only way we as a society advance in a genuine way is to lower our guard and accept each other for who we are. I am hopeful that's what we're looking at right now. If we wait for a full 180-degree change, we are going to lose a lot of people," she said.