Georgia voters reject RFRA if it discriminates

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Georgia voters want their medical marijuana, casino gambling and ability to discriminate against the LGBTs. Or maybe not, depending on which poll you believe.

Ahead of the opening of the Georgia Legislature on Monday, the AJC quizzed Georgia voters on a handful of hot-button issues. The one that directly concerns gays in the state is Sen. Josh McKoon's “religious freedom” bill that's up for consideration for the third consecutive year. 

Battle lines have been drawn, with McKoon (photo) understating the bill as offering “modest protections for people of faith” while LGBT critics dismiss it as a “vehicle for discrimination.” Business titans warn that the measure will negatively impact the state's economy.

What the AJC found was disheartening – or maybe a bit encouraging – depending on how their pollsters worded the question. The discouraging part comes with a question that's misleading about the intent of McKoon's legislation:

The poll first told respondents the bill “will prevent state and local governments from interfering with an individual’s right to practice their religion. Supporters say the bill would protect people of any religion from government interference. Opponents worry it could lead to discrimination against gays and lesbians.”

Asked whether lawmakers should pass it, 53 percent of all respondents said “yes,” including 65 percent of Republicans and 43 percent of Democrats.

McKoon, of course, was elated. Via the AJC:

“Look, I think it’s amazing given what I estimate to be hundreds of thousands of dollars spent trying to tell the public this is some terrible, awful thing,” McKoon said, referring to opposition from the state’s corporate leaders who worry the bill will hurt the state’s image.

“I see it as a tremendous affirmation of what we’re doing,” said McKoon, who has said repeatedly that he has no anti-gay agenda. He said it was nonsensical to ask the bill’s supporters about allowing businesses to refuse service, calling it a “false premise” because that was not the intent of his bill, he said.

But the AJC clarified their muddy questions with a follow-up, which produced a slightly more encouraging result for gay Georgians:

Those who said yes, and those who said they didn’t know, were then asked: “What if the bill allowed businesses here in Georgia to refuse service or refuse to offer a job to gays or lesbians based on the business owner’s religious beliefs?”

Forty-one percent said the bill should still move forward while 53 percent said it should not.

By combining the results from both questions, the poll found that only 27 percent of Georgia voters would support the bill if it allowed discrimination.

So if the bill allowed discrimination – McKoon says it doesn't though a host of LGBT activists, progressives and businesses say it does – less than a third of Georgia voters would support it. 

That's a near identical match to poll results that Georgia Equality – the statewide LGBT group and chief architect of the bill's opposition – found in 2014 when McKoon first introduced the “religious freedom” measure. In that sampling of registered voters, 63% said they do not support using religious beliefs as a reason for discrimination. That number ticked up to 64% when looking at just voters in metro Atlanta.

So frame questions about the bill around discrimination and Georgia voters are clear that they don't support it.

As for Gov. Nathan Deal – stuck between conservatives who want the bill and businesses that don't – he can't manage to figure out where he stands. He wanted LGBT protections added, then didn't and then stopped caring.

Now, he's decided that it's a legislative issue and despite that he's governor, will cede any leadership and wants nothing to do with it. Via the AJC:

The coalition of business interests and gay rights activists that wants to halt the “religious liberty” effort this year may not be able to rely on Gov. Nathan Deal to take a front-and-center role in navigating the debate.

“I have made my position clear to those that are interested. I think that’s really a legislative issue,” he said on the eve of the legislative session. “And I’m going to let them play it out.”

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