Ga. Republicans launch ‘religious freedom’ fight

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A group of 19 Georgia lawmakers – all Republican men – opened another round in the controversial “religious freedom” fight Tuesday by introducing legislation that has ignited national controversy and a veto from the governor.

Senate Bill 233 from Sen. Marty Harbin (photo), a Republican from Tyrone, seeks to amend Georgia law, “to provide for the preservation of religious freedom.” The legislation would apparently add language from the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act to state law. The full text of the bill was not immediately available Tuesday afternoon.

The legislation introduced Tuesday was sponsored by Harbin and 18 co-sponsors – all Republicans – including Sen. Josh McKoon, who is the lawmaker that has served as the public face of “religious freedom” legislation for three years. Other co-sponsors include Sens. Jesse Stone, Chuck Payne, William Ligon, Steve Gooch, Michael Williams, Bill Heath, Bruce Thompson, Lee Anderson, Matt Brass, John Wilkinson, Rick Jeffares, Frank Ginn, Burt Jones, Tyler Harper, Chuck Hufstetler, Mike Dugan and Jack Hill.

The legislation comes after conservative lawmakers, including McKoon, promised to revive debate over “religious freedom” this year despite Gov. Nathan Deal's veto of an anti-LGBT “religious freedom” bill last March. The legislation, House Bill 757, came after Senate Republicanshijacked the Pastor Protection Act and added anti-gay provisions from the First Amendment Defense Act and a state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Act. All but three of the sponsors of Harbin's SB 233 voted for the legislation that Deal vetoed last year. The other three – Payne, Anderson and Brass – were not senators at the time of the vote.

SB 233 also comes after top GOP leaders – Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston – said they aren't interested in seeing the legislation introduced this year.

Harbin's bill was drew immediate criticism from progressive lawmakers.

UPDATE | Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said Harbin's bill reinforces the need for LGBT citizens to be protected from discrimination.

“We have had concerns that the Senate would reintroduce a RFRA and continue to be concerned that without civil rights protections in place it can be used as a vehicle to discriminate against others,” Graham said. “That is why we support comprehensive and inclusive protections that would protect people of faith, members of the LGBT community, and others equally under the law.”

Earlier this month, Democrats in the Georgia Senate unveileda sweeping civil rights bill that would protect LGBT people and others from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.Senate Bill 119, also know as the Georgia Civil Rights Act, would bring the state in line with 45 others – and federal standards – that already ban discrimination based on race, gender, ancestry and religion. The measure would add protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, which are protections not included in federal law.

UPDATE | In the wake of Deal's veto last March, Harbin joined with anti-LGBT religious activists to blast the governor. Harbin called the veto “absolutely wrong” and argued that the legislation did not discriminate against LGBT people.

“We need to call a special session. We need to represent the people, not the big business entities that say this is bad,” Harbin said at the time. “It is not discrimination. It is freedom and liberty for the religious leaders that are here today.”

Regina Willis contributed to this story.

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