Two state senators – one who sponsors anti-gay legislation and one who fights for LGBT equality – walked into a church in Midtown, long an LGBT stronghold, to chat about “religious freedom” legislation. The start of a good joke? Nah, it really happened.
The coming together of the political odd couple kicked off a three-day, four-city debate series last month between Sens. Greg Kirk (left) and Vincent Fort (right). The lawmakers chewed over the anti-gay “religious freedom” legislation that has roiled the State Capitol for three years. And it's likely to make a comeback when legislators return in January.
“This issue of whether or not Georgians will be made into outcasts, this issue of whether Georgia will sanction state sponsored discrimination is many things. It is a financial issue. It is a business issue. It is a cultural issue. But it is first and foremost, a moral issue,” said Fort, an Atlanta Democrat.
Kirk, a Republican from Southwest Georgia and former Baptist minister, sponsored what critics called the most anti-gay of a slate of “religious freedom” legislation earlier this year. Throughout the debate with Fort he argued – just as he did during the legislative session – that his bill and other “religious freedom” legislation wasn't prompted by anti-gay animus or efforts to under the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2015 that legalized gay marriage.
“My viewpoint tonight does not come from a bigoted viewpoint,” Kirk told the crowd of about 50 people in the chapel of Saint Mark United Methodist Church.
“Live and let live was the theme of the religious liberty bill earlier this year,” he added.
Kirk's legislation was morphed into a larger anti-gay “religious freedom” bill, which the General Assembly passed on March 16. Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed it less than two weeks later, prompting Kirk – stung from the divisive fight over the legislation – to say he would move on to other issues in 2017. He repeated that during his debate with Fort, but said it was critical that public discussion continue over the legislation.
“I don't plan to carry any bills for religious liberty this year. I would be supportive, obviously, but at the same time, that's not what I plan to focus on,” Kirk said.
“We need more input about how we come together, how do we balance equal rights with the religious community. How do we balance this out going forward,” he added.
Fort dismissed the legislation as “a gargantuan waste of time.” Kirk quipped, “it was time well spent.”
“The reality is that companies, business does not want to come to a place where people are discriminated against. Discrimination is bad for business. When a RFRA passes and becomes law in Georgia, there will be a boycott,” Fort said.
But Kirk argued that North Carolina – caught in a national controversy over an anti-LGBT bill signed into law earlier this year – has added more jobs than Georgia despite boycotts and the removal of college and professional sporting events.
“Basketball players and football players need to play basketball and football, and not use those to promote social issues,” Kirk said.
He added that his legislation would have prevented the state government from penalizing people if they “expressed the traditional definition of marriage.” Another measure, called the Pastor Protection Act, passed the state House on Feb. 11 and reaffirmed that clergy don't have to officiate gay weddings. It was later combined with Kirk's bill.
Critics said the legislation amounted to state-sponsored discrimination and an effort to undercut the legalization of same-sex marriage.
“What do pastors have to be protected against? The LGBT community? I don't think so. No pastor can be forced to perform a marriage ceremony that he or she does not want to perform. The First Amendment protests those rights. The Pastor Protection Act is unnecessary,” Fort said.
Kirk, like other Republican lawmakers, balked at efforts to include protections for LGBT people in their bills and argued that they aren't deserving of being named a protected class in legislation.
“The LGBT community fought for the right to marriage equality. Why does there need to be a protected class in marriage? What's the benefit of a protected class beyond that? I'm not sure where it ends. Do we have other couples that come along – maybe polygamist marriage is recognized. Is that going to become a protected class,” Kirk asked.
What about marriage to minors and mixed-race couples, Kirk added.
Fort then corrected Kirk.
“Mixed race couples are a protected class,” he said.
“The reason why the LGBT community needs to be a protected class – it’s not enough to be able to marry. The LGBT community ought to be protected from discrimination on the job and at other venues,” Fort added.
“African-Americans are a protected class beyond marriage and they are protected on the job and in other locations. That ought to be extended to the LGBT community,” he added.
Kirk's legislation would have allowed businesses to refuse service to LGBT people. During the debate, he argued that who a business serves ought to be left up to the marketplace.
“Why not let the marketplace decide. If I open up in Midtown a bakery and I say we're not going to do same-sex weddings, I won't be in business,” Kirk said.
Fort then quizzed Kirk about the bakery.
“If that bakery opened up in South Georgia and said we will not serve married gay couples, would be that OK. Would that be acceptable?” Fort asked.
“As far as I'm concerned, that would be up to that business owner. It would be their conscience. I don't agree with everyone's decision about a lot of things,” Kirk said.
Then, Kirk equated gay marriage to the buyer of a new car picking its color.
“It doesn't mean I need to pass judgment on it. The Jesus I serve is about love and openness. It's not for me to judge if it's right or wrong,” he added.
Fort then asked Kirk what if the bakery refused to serve black customers.
“Oh no, we have laws on that already,” Kirk responded.
Kirk, by the way, lives in Midtown during the legislative session and may know a gay person or two.
The debate, held Sept. 20 at Saint Mark, was the first of four between Kirk and Fort. The two also squared off in Savannah on Sept. 21 and twice on Sept. 22 – in Macon and Tifton.