The controversy over "religious freedom" legislation at the State Capitol erupted into dueling press conferences on Wednesday, with supporters urging anti-gay religious followers to wage war to get the measures passed.
Supporters also argued that the legislation – House Bill 29 from state Rep. Sam Teasley (top image right) and a yet-to-be-filed measure from state Sen. Josh McKoon (top image left) – would not allow anti-gay discrimination as opponents have argued. Yet the Georgia Baptist Convention organized the event and speakers included anti-gay religious activists.
"This bill is being introduced – I will say this very clearly – it is not about discrimination," said Robert White, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Convention. "It does not promote nor does it allow for discrimination against any group. Those who claim that this bill will be used to discriminate against social groups in our culture are fear mongering and have not one single shred of evidence to back their claim."
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. "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."
The speakers didn't mention former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran or gay marriage on Wednesday, a change in tactics from a rally earlier this month where both were used as reasons to support the "religious freedom" bills. Harris and the Georgia Baptist Convention have supported Cochran since his suspension and firing over a book in which he calls homosexuality a perversion.
McKoon dismissed critics who said the legislation would allow anti-gay discrimination and the anti-gay positions of the groups backing him on Wednesday.
"As far as the views of individual religious groups, I would say to that in America, we allow everyone to believe what they wish to believe.," McKoon said.
Teasley also issued a warning to businesses, including Delta Air Lines, that have opposed the legislation.
"As we continue to have these conversations, it has been my sense that they recognize that the language in the bill doesn't discriminate. The language in the bill doesn't do what opponents have said it does. So it's been my argument to them that it's really not an area I would personally get involved in," Teasley said.
Bills provide 'right to discriminate'
Opponents of the measure followed that event with a press conference of their own featuring faith leaders speaking out against the measures.
"House Bill 29 is not about religious freedom, it is not about religious liberty, it is about the right to discriminate against gays, against women, against children, against African Americans. As a Georgian who happens to be a Baptist I don’t want that done in my name," said Rev. Timothy McDonald III (second photo) of First Iconium Baptist Church.
Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell of First Baptist Church and Rev. James Lamkin of Northside Drive Baptist Church also spoke out against the legislation. The pastors are part of a group of more than 100 religious leaders who signed a letter earlier this month urging legislators to oppose the bills. The group came out against the "religious freedom" bills during an event on Jan. 13.
"This bill has the potential to do genuine harm from discrimination against gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual citizens to people claiming a right to ignore certain laws based on their religious beliefs," Pennington-Russell said.
Opponents of the legislation have also launched a grassroots campaign to fight it.
Mobile billboard taunts lawmakers
The dueling press conferences came as a mobile billboard circled the Gold Dome with a banner criticizing the proposals. The messaging – that the "religious freedom" proposals would allow legal protections for men to beat their wives and abuse children – was similar to ads that gay-led Better Georgia placed in newspapers on Monday targeting McKoon and Teasley.
Both men denounced the newspaper ads – Teasley called them "disgusting," "abhorrent" and "totally devoid of truth" on Tuesday, according to the AJC – and Teasley dismissed Better Georgia on Wednesday as a "radical group" mischaracterizing the legislation as the "Religion As An Excuse Bill."
McKoon said the ads "muddy" the debate over the legislation.
"It's important to note that the same group that is now making these sorts of charges, they spent eight months trying to say this bill would in some way invite discrimination," McKoon said. "The facts have caught up to them on that and so they are now trying to muddy the waters as we move forward with this legislation to suggest there will be these other negative consequences."