Georgia Senate fires salvo in ‘religious freedom’ fight

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Republican lawmakers in the Georgia Senate proposed constitutional protections to allow religious groups to receive public aid, the start of what could be the latest fight over anti-LGBT “religious freedom” legislation. 

Senate Resolution 105 from state Sen. Bill Health, a Republican from Breman, asks voters to approve a Constitutional amendment that would allow religious and faith-based organizations to receive funding for social services. Heath introduced the measure on Tuesday with support from powerful Republican lawmakers. Co-sponsors include Sens. David Shafer (photo), the President Pro Tem of the Senate; Bill Cowsert, the Senate Majority Leader; and Jeff Mullis, who chairs the powerful Senate Rules Committee. 

Under current Georgia law, religious groups can't receive public funding for social service programs. But lifting those prohibitions could allow faith-based organizations to discriminate LGBT people and have their services, such as adoption, funded by public money.

That issue raised criticism from LGBT and other progressive issues last February when GOP lawmakers – including Shafer and Mullis – pushed a sweeping “religious freedom” bill through the Rules Committee on the way to a quick passage from Senate and House lawmakers. The bill would have allowed faith-based organizations to discriminate against LGBT people and others.

The omnibus hate bill was later vetoed by Gov. Nathan Deal. Earlier this year, Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston said they weren't interested in revisiting the “religious freedom” fight. 

But the introduction of SR 105 could be a way to reopen a portion of the legislation through a Constitutional amendment. Voters would face this ballot question:

Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended in a manner consistent with the United States Constitution so as to prevent discrimination in the public funding of social services by allowing religious or faith based organizations to receive public aid, directly or indirectly, for the provision of such services?”

The AJC, which first reported the resolution on Tuesday, said it face long odds in the House.

It faces a steep climb toward passage, however. Because it proposes a constitutional amendment, it would need two-thirds approval in both the Senate and House before it could be placed before voters on the 2018 ballot. And while it may make it out of the state Senate, where the GOP holds a super-majority, it is unlikely to advance out of the state House, where Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, has backed Gov. Nathan Deal’s plea to move on from last year’s battle.

GOP lawmakers have tried for years to include protections for religious groups receiving state grants, but such measures by themselves have never passed.

In 2016, Shafer complained that without the sweeping anti-LGBT bill, faith-based adoption agencies would be threatened.

“I would hate to see all the faith-based adoption agencies shut down because their sponsoring agencies hold to a different belief of marriage than the Supreme Court,” Shafer said last February.

Senate Resolution 105 was introduced with nearly three-dozen co-sponsors, most of whom voted for the anti-LGBT legislation in 2016. Others sponsors include Sens. Josh McKoon, the anti-gay public face of “religious freedom” legislation, Greg Kirk, who introduced an anti-LGBT bill last year, and Fran Millar, who has applauded an anti-LGBT law in North Carolina.

Others include Sens. John Kennedy, Majority Caucus Chair, Jesse Stone, Judson Hill, Steve Gooch, William Ligon, Mike Dugan, Chuck Hufstetler, Bruce Thompson, Lindsey Tippins, P.K. Martin, Frank Ginn, Blake Tillery, Matt Brass, Rick Jeffares, Jack Hill, Dean Burke, Ben Watson, Tyler Harper, Ellis Black, John Wilkinson, Lee Anderson, Brandon Beach, Renee Unterman, Chuck Payne, John Albers, Burt Jones, Michael Williams and Marty Harbin.

Regina Willis contributed to this story.


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