Fight over ‘religious freedom’ bill opens in Senate

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A controversial “religious freedom” bill began its churn through the Georgia Senate on Wednesday with its sponsor making it clear he doesn't want other lawmakers to tinker with it.

As Senate Bill 233 was undergoing its first reading – typically a routine process after legislation is introduced – Sen. Marty Harbin interjected to warn lawmakers that he'll move to engross the bill, which would prohibit any amendments.

“At the proper time, I would like to move to engross Bill 233,” Harbin said.

Engrossing the legislation would keep opponents from adding LGBT protections and supporters from broadening it into a more sweeping attack on LGBT people.

“Notice has been served,” Cagle said as he presided over the Senate.

Sen. Renee Unterman, a Republican from Buford, then interrupted to point out that the move to engross was “historic.”

“Since I've been here and it's getting to be dinosaur age here, I have never ever heard of an engrossment on a first reader before a bill ever goes to a committee, negating the fact that the chairman has the ability to be able to negotiate bills,” Unterman said.

“Is that not true? I don't know in your time has this ever – this is a historic vote – is that not true,” Unterman asked Cagle.

“I don't recall it being used prior today but I stand to be corrected over the history of my term,” Cagle said.

Sen. Fran Millar, a Republican from Atlanta, asked if lawmakers would be allowed to debate whether the bill can be engrossed. Cagle said Harbin's motion would be debated – 20 minutes split evenly among supporters and opponents – ahead of its third reading.

Cagle assigned Harbin's bill to the Senate Rules Committee. The panel is chaired by Sen. Jeff Mullis, a Republican from Chickamauga, and includes two senators – Jack Hill and Steve Gooch – that co-sponsored the bill.

The panel also includes Sen. David Shafer, the Republican president pro tem of the Senate.

It's also the same panel that morphed three “religious freedom” bills into one in February 2016 to create an omnibus hate bill that targeted LGBT people. And the panel used legislative hijinks to get there – holding a quick hearing for an anti-LGBT bill after little public notice and then offering days of delay before quickly passing the hybrid legislation.

Harbin and 18 other Republican lawmakers introduced the bill on Tuesday, sparking another round in the years-long fight over “religious freedom” legislation. Gov. Nathan Deal said he's “extremely cautious” about the bill.

On Feb. 19, Senate Democrats led by Sen. Lester Jackson introduced an LGBT-inclusive civil rights bill. That measure was assigned to the Judiciary Committee, which was also the likely home to Harbin's bill. Until it wasn't.

RFRA being 'weaponized' in Georgia

Harbin's motion to engross Senate Bill 233 failed – 18-34 – after sometimes heated debate on the Senate floor. The debate (listen bleow) previewed the arguments that lawmakers – and activists – will have over the bill.

“The religious freedom that we have here in Georgia is different from the protections that we have under the federal law,” Harbin said. “All this bill does is quote the federal law, three lines of code, and applies it to Georgia.”

“Currently today, our federal prisoners have more rights than the state of Georgia, than a citizen of Georgia has because of federal law,” he added.

Harbin said he wants to engross his legislation, “so it will not be changed and we will not have to deal with” the contentious debate over “religious freedom” bills seen in past years.

“I believe that the people of Georgia deserve the same protection that we provide at the federal level at the state level. And that we are to represent the people, the people that elected us to come down here. We are to represent them and listen to them and I encourage you to listen to your constituents and what they say because I believe they desire religious freedom at least to the same degree they have it at the federal level. I would ask you to consider that and consider your people, the people you represent,” Harbin added.

Sen. Josh McKoon, a co-sponsor of Harbin's legislation and the public face of “religious freedom” legislation for several years, said engrossing the bill would assure that “precisely the same legislation” that matches the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed in 1993.

McKoon also argued Harbin's bill avoids the “state-sanctioned discrimination” that Deal cited when he vetoed the “religious freedom” bill in 2016.

“This is the fourth legislative session that legislation has been offered regarding the right of free exercise of Georgians,” McKoon said.

“In this case, what we are attempting to do here, is to make sure we can have an up or down vote on a very narrow protection of the right of free exercise and not get into a lot of the other issues that occurred during the last two years of the legislative session,” he added.

But Sen. Elena Parent, a Democrat from Decatur, argued that comparing the bill to the federal RFRA law “is missing about half of the reality of that situation.”

“Yes it may be true that a federal law was passed decades ago, at the federal level there are also civil rights statutes. Other states that have passed RFRA bills, such as the ones we've been debating for the last number of years, also have civil rights statutes in their state law. Georgia has no civil rights statue in its state law,” Parent said.

“If you pass something like this with no corollary civil rights law, you are indeed sending the message that Georgia welcomes discrimination against certain groups,” she added.

Parent also pointed out that the federal RFRA law was passed to protect Native America religions and their use of peyote.

“It was not meant to protect a dominant religion from changing laws that they do not like and that's the way it's been weaponized over the last few years with the legalization of same-sex marriage. No one is fooled that that's what's going on,” Parent said.

Unterman, one of several Republicans to vote against Harbin's motion, said engrossing the legislation prevents lawmakers from working on the bill and sets a “terrible precedent.”

“It is very dangerous to do this. I don't think this bill warrants that, that you upset the apple cart and especially with the precedent of the governor has already sent a very clear message. My head is pretty thick but I got the message from the governor,” she said.


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