Cobb lawmaker introduces new anti-gay bill

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In case one controversial, anti-gay “religious freedom” bill isn't enough, a Georgia lawmaker proposed a second on Monday – adding to the growing list of legislation taking aim at gay marriage.

State Rep. Ed Setzler (photo), a Cobb County Republican, introduced House Bill 837 on Monday. Like a similar measure from state Sen. Josh McKoon, Setzler's bill is called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Co-sponsors include state Reps. Barry Fleming, Sam Teasley and Matt Ramsey, according to Georgia Pol.

McKoon welcomed Setzler's bill.

LGBT activists and progressive critics have blasted McKoon's bill as a threat to LGBT inclusive non-discrimination policies in 60 jurisdictions across the state. McKoon's defends his Senate Bill 129 as offering modest protections for people of faith.

McKoon's bill is stuck in the House Judiciary Committee, where Fleming helped stall it last year to avoid LGBT protections being added to it. In 2014, Fleming chaired a subcommittee hearing packed with more than 150 LGBT supporters who complained that a similar bill – this one from Teasley – would open the door to anti-gay discrimination. Last year, Teasley dropped his “religious freedom” bill and backed the proposal from McKoon.

On Friday, Rep. Billy Mitchell – a Democrat from Stone Mountain – introduced House Bill 816, called the Georgia Student Religious Liberties Act. The measure, which has bipartisan support, focuses on prayer in public schools. Via WABE:

Mitchell said the bill is not a direct response to other legislation on religious freedom. But, “I’ve had many a minister call me to say that they were very, very interested in this legislation and wanted to see something like that,” he said. “Their mantra is 'we’ve taken prayer out of the schools and look at all the problems that have come into it.'”

According to multiple constitutional scholars, voluntary prayer by students is allowed in the lunchroom, on the playground and in classrooms as long as it’s not disruptive or in some way affects learning.

But Mitchell’s bill goes further than just affirming a student’s right to pray before taking a test or eating lunch. It includes regulations to allow students to lead voluntary, public prayers at football games, graduation ceremonies and other school events.

Mitchell's measure – which the lawmaker admits portions of it may be unconstitutional – is drawing concern from LGBT activists. Anthony Kreis, a gay law professor and political pundit, said the measure could open the door to anti-gay discrimination. Via WABE:

University of Georgia professor Anthony Michael Kreis points to another potential issue in Mitchell’s bill: that it would allow students to wear religious clothing “to the same extent that other types of clothing, accessories, and jewelry that display messages or symbols are permitted.”

“There are religious shirts with undertones that could be bullying against religious minorities and LGBT folks,” Kreis said.

The bills from Setzler and Mitchell come as lawmakers face at least four other anti-gay measures. On Thursday, Sen. Greg Kirk introduced the most sweeping of the anti-gay measures, his First Amendment Defense Act. Senate Bill 284 would allow people, businesses and churches to discriminate against LGBT couples seeking to marry or adopt.

Rep. Kevin Tanner has also filed two bills – House Bill 756, which would allow private businesses to deny service to gay couples getting married, and House Bill 757, which is the Pastor Protection Act and would reaffirm that pastors could not be forced to conduct gay marriages. LGBT critics contend that bill, though, would also threaten non-discrimination ordinances.

And there's also McKoon's measure, which the lawmaker is pushing for the third consecutive year. Powerful lawmakers, though, are hesitant to touch it. For now.

The onslaught of anti-gay legislation prompted Georgia Unites Against Discrimination – a coalition of LGBT and progressive groups – to schedule a Feb. 9 rally outside the State Capitol.

LGBT Georgians are under attack. The legislature is already considering four separate pieces of legislation aimed at giving license to discriminate against gay and transgender Georgians under the guise of religious freedom.

The rally will follow a Lobby Day the group has scheduled, also on Feb. 9, to meet face-to-face with lawmakers.

In 2015, LGBT activists, progressives and faith leaders rallied twice against McKoon's legislation – first at Liberty Plaza on Mach 17 and then two weeks later, on March 31, when they marched around the State Capitol.

UPDATE | Setzler told the AJC that his bill is a simple solution to the “religious freedom” debate as it matches the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act,

Some conservatives in Georgia have tried for the past several years to do the same, but concerns that the bills would be used to discriminate against gays and lesbians have kept them bottled up. Setzler said his bill is straightforward and unambiguous.

“I see this as different,” he said. “It’s substantive. But it’s a step that should be beyond reproach. You’ve got 23 years of case law around the federal RFRA. It’s stood the test of time.”


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