House panel rejects LGBT protections in bill

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MORE |Anti-gay bill suffers near fatal blow in state House

A Georgia House subcommittee rejected attempts to preserve LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances in a controversial “religious freedom” bill on Wednesday as the bill’s sponsor flatly opposed any protections for LGBT people.

The House Judiciary (Civil) Special Subcommittee swatted down a proposal from state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat, to spell out that the “religious freedom” bill wouldn’t gut gay-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances in Atlanta and dozens of municipalities across Georgia. The panel also rejected three other attempts to protect LGBT people. It then went on to pass the anti-gay bill from state Sen. Josh McKoon, a Republican from Columbus, to the full Judiciary Committee after a two-hour meeting. The Judiciary Committee is expected to consider the bill on Thursday.

Oliver’s proposal to amend McKoon’s bill came during the second day of hearings on the legislation. On Tuesday, the subcommittee heard about three hours of testimony.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Oliver made it clear that she wanted to add language to McKoon’s legislation protecting non-discrimination ordinances. McKoon was quick to reject it and members of the subcommittee moved to scuttle it.

“I hope it will be an anti-discrimination amendment. Do you object in concept to that kind of amendment,” Oliver asked of McKoon.

“I would strongly oppose that,” McKoon said.

McKoon has rejected any attempt to add LGBT protections to his legislation, all the while claiming that it would not provide a license to discriminate, as LGBT critics have charged. That included resisting Republican efforts to assuage critics of the bill during a hearing last month.

Before the subcommittee voted down Oliver’s amendment, state Rep. Wendell Willard (top photo) said lawmakers tried to address non-discrimination ordinances in McKoon’s legislation but couldn’t settle on the wording.

“We tried to see how the wording of that could be incorporated,” said Willard, a Republican from Sandy Springs and chair of the committee.

State Rep. Roger Bruce, an Atlanta Democrat, also pushed to amend McKoon’s proposal to address non-discrimination ordinances.

“Most of the objection is the fear that it would lead to state sponsored discrimination. I was trying to find something that speaks to anti-discrimination,” Bruce said. “I don’t see it in here.”

State Rep. Stacey Evans, a Smyrna Democrat, urged the subcommittee to add LGBT protections to McKoon’s legislation and approve Oliver’s amendment.

“It is specific. It is only talking about discrimination that is already prohibited by law,” Evans said.

'You asked the ultimate question'

State Rep. Tom Weldon, a Ringgold Republican, moved to oppose Oliver’s gay-inclusive amendment and was supported by Rep. Barry Fleming (second photo), a Harlem Republican.

“I believe it is your intent to take out specific language that would protect individuals against discrimination,” Oliver said to Weldon.

Weldon said the pro-gay amendment was too broad.

“It just seems extremely broad, the language that is included in the provision and that is my objection to it,” he said.

Georgia Unites Against Discrimination, a coalition of LGBT groups fighting McKoon’s legislation, blasted the defeat of the Oliver’s amendment.

“Proponents of RFRA have made it undeniable: S.B. 129 is about nothing more than allowing for discrimination against LGBT Georgians,” the group tweeted.

After a brief recess, Bruce asked Willard if the “religious freedom” bill would negate LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances if the U.S. Supreme Court legalizes gay marriage and a pastor declines to conduct a same-sex marriage or a vendor refuses services to a gay couple planning to wed.

“Would that basically override that city or county ordinance that is to the contrary? Would it make it null and void?” Bruce asked Willard.

“You asked the ultimate question as far as the legal question and I don’t know if anybody here can perceive how it would be handled by the court,” Willard said.

The panel also rejected three other attempts by Evans to protect LGBT people and gay-inclusive municipal ordinances. Evans' final failed amendment was an effort to add a bill from state Rep. Karla Drenner, one of three openly gay state lawmakers, to protect LGBT state employees from discrimination. Willard and other Republicans are co-sponsors of Drenner's bill.

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said the panel's actions on Wednesday make it clear that McKoon's bill is about discrimination.

“It is shameful that this bill is now clearly about creating a vehicle to discriminate against the LGBT community and that it passed so easily through the committee,” Graham said after the vote.

Graham also offered pointed criticism at state Rep. Beth Beskin, an Atlanta Republican, for voting for McKoon's bill while also being a co-sponsor of Drenner's pro-gay measure.

“I am especially troubled by state Rep. Beth Beskin, who is not only a co-sponsor of the Fair Employment Practices Act but who is someone who has told many of her constituents that she does not support discrimination,” Graham said.

Before the hearing, Georgia State Patrol troopers were ordered to clear the hearing room (bottom photo) before people were allowed to return. During Tuesday's hearing, a large crowd overwhelmed the small hearing room and troopers blocked access to some media outlets and spectators.

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