GOP senator tries to defang anti-gay religious bill

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A powerful Georgia Republican attempted to address the concerns of LGBT activists and other critics of an anti-gay religious bill, but he was smacked down by his GOP colleagues on Thursday during a hearing at the State Capitol. 

Instead, state Sen. Josh McKoon's controversial “religious freedom” bill was tabled by his own Judiciary Committee after an hour-long hearing. A frustrated McKoon said after the hearing that the amendment from Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert was a “poorly worded, bad addition” to his bill. 

“Of course I'm disappointed,” McKoon (photo) said. “We spent a year working on this language. We have 29 members of the Republican caucus that signed the language that was before the committee. So of course it was disappointing to have a late amendment that was presented in violation of the rules.”

Cowsert's amendment clarified that the legislation would protect “individuals against discrimination.” LGBT lobbyists and faith leaders have criticized McKoon's bill – and a similar measure from state Rep. Sam Teasley – as opening the door for anti-gay discrimination and providing a way to undo anti-discrimination ordinances put in place by nearly 60 municipalities and governments across Georgia. 

“The amendment was a result of pushback from a number of groups that had misconceptions about the intent of the bill,” Cowsert said. 

McKoon, who proposed a similar measure last year, has said publicly that his bill is not a vehicle for LGBT discrimination. But when pressed after the hearing why he wouldn't accept Cowsert's amendment to put into the measure the guarantees he offered during a pubic rally last month, McKoon demurred and blamed Cowsert for stalling the legislation.

“I think it was very poorly drafted language that came at the 11th hour. I don't think it was well considered,” McKoon said. “I think that would have been a very bad addition to the bill.”

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said Cowsert's amendment would address some concerns from LGBT activists and other critics of the “religious freedom” legislation from McKoon and Teasely. 

“The amendment that Sen. Cowsert offered today would go a long way toward addressing many of the concerns we have about the legislation,” Graham said. 

But he warned that the legislation, though tabled on Thursday, could resurface at another Judiciary Committee hearing. 

“It shows that there are continuing discussions behind the scenes about the bill. It should not give anybody any expectation that the bill will not move forward at this point. I am certainly pleased that they are slowing down,” Graham said. 

McKoon introduced the proposal, Senate Bill 129, on Tuesday and offered a revised version as the hearing opened on Thursday. Teasley introduced his measure, House Bill 29, in December.

The 16 people who testified during the hearing included several prominent anti-gay activists in favor of McKoon's bill as well as Graham and other progressives lobbying against the bill. 

“I am concerned that the passage of Senate Bill 129 will have a chilling effect on Georgia's 300,000 gay and transgender citizens,” Graham said. 

Mark Moskowitz, director of the Anti-Defamation League's Southeast Regional Office, called the legislation “ill-advised and wholly unnecessary” thanks to federal law that prohibits religious discrimination. 

“[The bill] effectively allows a business to impose their religious beliefs on the marketplace,” Moskowitz said. 

Tanya Ditty, Georgia's Anti-Gay Hater In Chief, spoke in favor of the bill, but her brief comments avoided the anti-gay rhetoric of her past testimony against a workplace discrimination bill. Before the hearing, Ditty approached state Rep. Karla Drenner, one of three openly gay members of the House, for a brief conversation. Ditty helped derail Drenner's bill in 2012 that would have provided workplace protections to LGBT state employees. State Rep. Simone Bell, also a lesbian, sat next to Ditty when the lawmaker arrived.

Mike Griffin, a spokesperson and lobbyist for the Georgia Baptist Convention, said critics of the legislation offered a “parade of horribles” about the bill that will never materialize. Griffin was joined by GBC President Don Hattaway.

“We want the same protections at the state level that we have at the federal level,” Hattaway said. “So all of the concern I appreciate, but there is no need for the concern.”


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