'Religious free­dom' fight

Ac­tivists, law­mak­ers at odds dur­ing con­tentious ses­sion

GA Voice - - Front Page - By PA­TRICK SAUN­DERS psaun­ders@the­gavoice.com For an ex­tended ver­sion of this story, go to www.the­gavoice.com.

Day 30 of Ge­or­gia’s leg­isla­tive ses­sion is a mile­stone day in the world of state pol­i­tics. It’s the fi­nal turn of the race lead­ing into the straight­away and then the fin­ish line on March 24. Day 30, or Cross­over Day, is the last day for bills to move from one cham­ber to the other and have an open path to be­com­ing law this year—how­ever, lan­guage from a bill that hasn’t “crossed over” can still be at­tached to a bill that has.

Cross­over Day fell on Feb. 29 this year, and of the slew of so-called “religious free­dom” bills pro­posed in the first 30 days of the ses­sion, none of them have at­tracted more at­ten­tion and had a bet­ter chance of pass­ing than House Bill 757—the “Pas­tor Pro­tec­tion Act” in name only ever since the lan­guage of state Sen. Greg Kirk’s (R-Amer­i­cus) anti-LGBT First Amend­ment De­fense Act was in­serted in dur­ing a com­mit­tee hear­ing last month.

The pub­lic pres­sure has been im­mense, with the busi­ness com­mu­nity in par­tic­u­lar tak­ing a vis­i­ble stand. There’s Ge­or­gia Pros­pers, the coali­tion of over 300 busi­nesses formed to com­bat such bills, with heavy­weight mem­bers like Coca-Cola, Delta and Google. There’s a new busi­ness that comes out seem­ingly ev­ery day to voice their op­po­si­tion to the bill, from Sales­force to Mi­crosoft to Vir­gin.

It’s led Gov. Nathan Deal to hud­dle with House and Se­nate lead­er­ship to fig­ure a way out of the na­tional spot­light with­out strip­ping so much from the bill that con­ser­va­tive leg­is­la­tors find scads of “For Sale” signs stuck in their lawns when they re­turn home to their dis­tricts later this month.

‘I re­ally hope that the bill will die’

Les­bian state Rep. Karla Dren­ner (D-Avon­dale Es­tates) was not sur­prised that the back­lash to last sum­mer’s U.S. Supreme Court deci-

“I think that fail­ure to act on a sub­stan­tive, mean­ing­ful religious free­dom mea­sure in 2016 will be cat­a­clysmic for the Ge­or­gia Repub­li­can party.”

—State Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Colum­bus) a sup­porter of House Bill 757 and au­thor of Se­nate Bill 129, an­other so-called “religious free­dom” bill

sion on same-sex mar­riage would be this fierce. She calls it “the worst ses­sion that we’ve ever had in our en­tire com­mu­nity’s life.”

Rep. Park Cannon (D-At­lanta), a queer women’s health ad­vo­cate who won a spe­cial elec­tion for les­bian for­mer state Rep. Si­mone Bell’s seat and took of­fice Feb. 22, is mak­ing her opin­ion of the bill crys­tal clear.

“I re­ally hope that the bill will die,” Cannon tells Ge­or­gia Voice. “I think it’s quite dis­grace­ful that our state would move to pass leg­is­la­tion that could harm our econ­omy, harm peo­ples’ lived ex­pe­ri­ence and also where they work.”

How­ever, state Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Colum­bus) stands by his vote in fa­vor of the bill as it is cur­rently writ­ten and crit­i­cizes busi­ness lead­ers who have spo­ken out about it yet do busi­ness in coun­tries where LGBT peo­ple can be im­pris­oned or worse.

“A lot of th­ese CEOs are happy to make a state­ment to curry a lit­tle pos­i­tive PR us­ing the Ge­or­gia Gen­eral As­sem­bly as a foil, but if it comes to ac­tu­ally los­ing some money off the bot­tom line to pull out of coun­tries that have th­ese ter­ri­ble crim­i­nal laws in place, they’re just ab­sent with­out leave I guess is the best thing I can say about that,” McKoon tells Ge­or­gia Voice.

McKoon ref­er­ences the elec­tion of Sen. David Per­due (R-GA) and the rise of Don­ald Trump in the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial race, say­ing he’s not sur­prised by their as­cent and that it’s due in part to es­tab­lish­ment Repub­li­cans “pre­tend­ing they are con­ser­va­tive.”

“I think that fail­ure to act on a sub­stan- tive, mean­ing­ful religious free­dom mea­sure in 2016 will be cat­a­clysmic for the Ge­or­gia Repub­li­can party,” McKoon warns.

Com­pro­mises and con­cerns

Dren­ner says that while she thinks it would be nice for no such bill to pass, “The win for our com­mu­nity would be the most nar­rowly-fo­cused bill pos­si­ble. It’s still a loss—I don’t want peo­ple to mis­un­der­stand what I’m say­ing,” she says, adding, “I’m say­ing that a win would be if there was a com­pro­mise and it didn’t en­com­pass the whole en­tire world. Maybe if it was just more like mar­riage-re­lated ac­tiv­i­ties. That would seem to be bet­ter than what’s out there right now with FADA at­tached to the Pas­tor Pro­tec­tion bill.”

Jeff Gra­ham, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Ge­or­gia Equal­ity, says that while the pub­lic pres­sure has be­gun to work, those who op­pose the bill need to re­main ac­tive and vo­cal as the ses­sion dwin­dles to a close over the next few weeks.

“A lot of at­ten­tion right now is on HB 757, but there are many bills, es­pe­cially on the House side re­lated to religious ex­emp­tion leg­is­la­tion, that could be sub­sti­tuted into House Bill 757,” Gra­ham says. “When they’re talk­ing about ‘still work­ing on the lan­guage,’ we need to make sure that they don’t just take the lan­guage from some other bill and put that on there in re­place­ment of the hor­ri­ble lan­guage of the First Amend­ment De­fense Act.”

Mean­while he says his group will keep re­view­ing the re­main­ing leg­is­la­tion and see­ing if there are ar­eas of com­pro­mise. Gra­ham, Hu­man Rights Cam­paign pres­i­dent Chad Grif­fin, Lambda Le­gal’s Si­mone Bell and about 50 con­cerned cit­i­zens de­liv­ered 75,000 emails and post­cards to Gov. Deal’s of­fice on March 2, in a show of the size of the op­po­si­tion to such a bill.

And no ral­lies against the bill are sched­uled as of yet, with Gra­ham say­ing he doesn’t know if an­other one will hap­pen or not.

“Ral­lies, while they’re im­por­tant, it re­ally is that di­rect con­stituent con­tact that has slowed down the process and can stop bad leg­is­la­tion from hap­pen­ing and that’s re­ally where we have our ef­forts fo­cused right now.”

The back­lash from busi­nesses and the pub­lic at large have led Repub­li­can lead­ers to work on scal­ing back the anti-LGBT mea­sures in House Bill 757. (File photo)

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