A powerful Republican lawmaker poured cold water on the already heated debate over “religious freedom,” hinting on Monday that he's in no hurry to take up the controversial bill again.
State Rep. Wendell Willard, the Republican head of the House Judiciary Committee and the city attorney for Sandy Springs, put the brakes on state Sen. Josh McKoon's RFRA proposal as the Georgia legislative session opened on Monday. The bill stalled in Willard's committee last March as opponents – led by Republican former state Rep. Mike Jacobs – successfully added LGBT protections to what critics said was an anti-gay bill.
Willard (photo) wasn't inclined to bring the bill back up before the legislature adjourned last year – and doesn't seem interested in getting to McKoon's bill anytime soon this year.
McKoon, speaking Monday on the Senate floor, urged quick action to free his bill for passage. But powerful House Judiciary Committee Chairman Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, essentially shrugged: “That’s a Senate bill,” he said. “We don’t get to Senate bills until after Crossover Day.”
Crossover Day is the 30th day of the 40-day session and the deadline for a bill to move from one chamber to the other without much parliamentary maneuvering. The House and Senate will often spend the first 30 days of a session working on their own bills to make sure they beat that Crossover Day deadline.
Monday, of course, was only Day 1.
Willard hasn't made his position on the bill known publicly, though he has wondered aloud about whether the legislation would gut LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances in 60 jurisdictions across Georgia. The influential lawmaker could be among Republicans torn over the bill, its lack of LGBT protections and the threatened impact passing it could have on the state's economy. Or maybe he's looking for an easier way out of the controversy, such as House Speaker David Ralston's Pastor Protections Act. Or he could be mirroring Gov. Nathan Deal, who wants to avoid the issue altogether.
Willard is among Republican co-sponsors of a bill from state Rep. Karla Drenner, one of two openly gay state lawmakers, that would protect LGBT state employees from discrimination. But he can sometimes get a little cranky with the press and lean on state troopers for some muscle.