House Speaker David Ralston hinted that lawmakers huddling to find a way out from under an anti-gay "religious freedom" bill are being guided by a simple principle: Crafting a compromise that leaves everyone "feeling good" about Georgia.
That's political speak for finding an answer that tamps down talk of a national backlash that's been building since the Senate approved the disturbing legislation on Feb. 19. In a 38-14 vote, senators took the largely innocuous Pastor Protection Act championed by Ralston, tacked on the anti-gay provisions of Sen. Greg Kirk's First Amendment Defense Act and left it on Ralston's doorstep in a brown paper sack.
Businesses, hospitality groups and LGBT activists have set the bag afire by threatening a hit to the state's economy and leaving lawmakers to clean up what they started. On Monday, Gov. Nathan Deal made his most forceful statement yet on the legislation, warning lawmakers away from a bill that "will be perceived as allowing discrimination."
The bill, despite the efforts of supporters to gloss over its provisions, would allow faith-based agencies and others to discriminate against LGBT people based on religious beliefs. There's no perception – it opens the door to discrimination and threatens the LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination policies in place in companies and cities across the state.
Later Monday, Ralston (photo) responded to Deal's comments, echoing that when it comes to the state's economy, perception is as bad as reality when it comes to the hybrid House Bill 757. Via Georgia Pol:
One thing I found out this weekend from talking to people, even in my district is that people, they care about our image as a state. That was one of the things that I think informed the concerns of many people about bringing casinos into Georgia, and I think the same things informed them about that issue.
We’re working hard on that issue. I respect that it’s a very intense issue on both sides. I try to respect that. I think it’s very unfortunate that it’s become so politicized, and with so much misinformation out there. I hope that once we get past today, we’ve still got about three calendar weeks that I hope that we can get some calm heads around the table and people that don’t have a political agenda in this to work out something that we can feel good about as a state because I think that’s very important.
So that's another hopeful sign that powerful Republicans want the legislation defanged.
But as much as lawmakers complain about the tough spot they're in, it's of their own making. When the House Judiciary Committee had the opportunity in early February to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes in a public accommodations bill, they balked. Religion remained in the bill as one of four protected classes. And last year, the same House committee tabled a "religious freedom" bill from Sen. Josh McKoon when LGBT protections were successfully added to it.
Protecting LGBT citizens – and people of faith – from discrimination is something lawmakers could feel good about, as Ralston wishes. But they keep screwing it up. And now, Ralston is left with a burning bag of legislative manure on his doorstep.