Georgia House Committee Amends Religious Freedom Bill
(APN) ATLANTA — Yesterday, Thursday, March 26, 2015, the House Judiciary Civil Committee voted to amend SB 129, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) bill, to expressly state that eradicating discrimination is a compelling government interest, thus prohibiting religious freedom being used as a justification for discrimination.
LGBTQI equality advocates celebrated the amendment, introduced by State Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Brookhaven). The language added is: “and protecting persons against discrimination on any ground prohibited by federal, state, or local law.”
The amendment passed the full Judiciary Committee with a 9 to 8 vote. The Committee did not record the vote, and they are not required to by law; however, according to what Atlanta Progressive News saw in terms of legislators raising their hands, consistent with a report by Georgia Voice magazine:
Voting yea were: Reps. Beth Beskin (R-Atlanta), Roger Bruce (D-Atlanta), Jay Powell (R-Camilla), Jacobs, Stacey Evans (D-Smyrna), LaDawn Jones (D-Atlanta), Ronnie Mabra (D-Fayetteville), Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur), and Pam Stephenson (D-Decatur).
Voting nay were: Stephen Allison (R-Blairsville), Johnny Caldwell (R-Thomaston), Barry Fleming (R-Harlem), Trey Kelley (R-Cedartown), Larry O’Neal (R-Bonaire), Dale Rutledge (R-McDonough), Andy Welch (R-McDonough), and Tom Weldon (R-McDonough).
Immediately, Rep. Fleming said he could not support the bill with the non-discrimination language. He called a motion to table the bill; it was tabled with 16 votes. It can come up again without notice.
Rep. Beskin, who represents Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood, and Rep. Powell, switched their votes from the day before in subcommittee, where they voted no on the amendment, to voting yes in committee.
There is concern that the bill could come up with insufficient notice to Committee Members.
As previously reported by APN, in the Senate Judiciary Civil Committee, State Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus), without notice, without all the committee member present, amended and passed the Senate version of SB 129 in ten minutes. Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta), after sitting through two long committee meetings, went to the bathroom; and when he got back, the bill was gone.
It appears from public testimony and conversations in the hearings rooms that many believe what is fueling the rush to pass a RFRA bill in Georgia, without a non-discrimination provision, is fear that the Supreme Court of the U.S. will legalize same-sex marriage this year.
Some ministers and supporters of the bill have stated they will be discriminated against, if they are forced to perform same-sex marriages or provide services and products for the ceremonies. This, they say, would violate their sincere religious beliefs.
However, there is no indication, even if the Supreme Court upholds same-sex marriage, as it appears likely to do, that ministers would be forced to perform marriages; merely that the government must perform and recognize them.
TWO DAYS OF SUBCOMMITTEE HEARINGS
A Special House Judiciary Civil Subcommittee Hearing listened to public testimony on SB 129, on Tuesday, March 24, and the Subcommittee mark-up and voting occurred on Wednesday, March 25, 2015. Each hearing went on at least two or three hours.
Tuesday’s special hearing was necessary because so many people called and emailed their representative either for or against the bill. It was an epic battle between lawyers and clergy who oppose SB 129, and those who support the bill.
Supporters of SB 129 want the bill passed without any amendments added. They do not believe the bill discriminates and see no need for a non-discrimination provision in the bill.
Supporters recurringly cited one example for the need of this bill: the Savannah State University (SSU) foot washing incident. Students at SSU were allegedly kicked off campus for foot washing, but the University called it harassment and hazing.
One pastor wanted to know if he would be forced to perform same sex marriages.
“I perform weddings… what law do we have in the future to protect me, if I chose to not perform a particular wedding?” Rev. Chris Webb, Pastor, Grace Baptist Church, Eatonton, Georgia, asked of the subcommittee.
“This law wouldn’t do it,” Chairman Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs) replied.
Earlier Chairman Willard said to a similar question that it was the person’s choice to perform a wedding or not.
Opponents of SB 129 said it could be used as an excuse to discriminate, if the anti-discrimination amendment is not included. They want anti-discrimination provisions in the statute, not just in the legislative findings, which are not binding in court.
Other concerns are that the word person also means corporations.
Out in the hall, while waiting to get into the hearing, people were not as guarded with their sincere religious beliefs.
One elderly woman told this reporter, “We need this bill, so we don’t have to bake cakes for those Sodom and Gomorrah people. It’s against our religious beliefs to serve them. People are losing their homes and businesses because they sue us, if we don’t serve them.”
How ironic. Supporters of the bill claim it does not discriminate, but many who support SB 129 want to use it to discriminate.
APN asked Rev. Tim McDonald, Senior Pastor, First Iconium Baptist Church, where in the Bible are people getting this notion that providing people with services, if their lifestyles violate their religious beliefs, further violates their religious beliefs?
“It’s a misinterpretation and application of scripture. Historically we have seen what this has gotten us, with supporting of slavery, supporting of denial of women’s rights, abuse of children, and segregation. They were all done in the name of religion. I hope we don’t make that same mistake with SB 129,” Rev. McDonald said.
APN tried to ask a minister who supports the bill the same question, but he refused the interview.
On March 25, the House Judiciary Civil Subcommittee took up the work of making the bill better – or not.
As previously reported by APN, the exercise of religion is now already defined in Paragraphs III and IV of Section 1, Article 1 of the Georgia Constitution.
Paragraph III. Freedom of conscience. Each person has the natural and inalienable right to worship God, each according to the dictates of that person´s own conscience; and no human authority should, in any case, control or interfere with such right of conscience.
Paragraph IV. Religious opinions; freedom of religion. No inhabitant of this state shall be molested in person or property or be prohibited from holding any public office or trust on account of religious opinions; but the right of freedom of religion shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness or justify practices inconsistent with the peace and safety of the state.
State Rep. Fleming spoke repeatedly of his desired to restore religious freedom to the same level as freedom of speech, press, and assembly.
State Reps. Oliver and Evans (D-Smyrna) introduced amendments and attempted several times to place anti-discrimination language in the bill, but were outvoted each time in Subcommittee.
Rep. Oliver’s proposed amendment read as follows: “Important governmental interest includes, but is not limited to, protecting the welfare of a child from abuse and neglect, as provided for by state law, and protecting persons against discrimination on any ground prohibited by the federal, state or local laws.”
Only the child protection from abuse and neglect section was accepted by a majority of the House Subcommittee members. The anti-discrimination provision against persons was considered too broad to be included in the bill.
“There are many states who have adopted religious freedom statutes who have also included non-discrimination language. I was surprised that this subcommittee was not willing to adopt non-discrimination language,” Rep. Oliver told APN after the hearing.
Rep. Evans made an effort to change the word person to individual, but that was also voted down.
Rep. Bruce asked the Subcommittee “if the the bill would overturn city and county ordinances that are currently in existence across the state that protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation and other forms of discrimination.”
“If there is a local ordinance… that permits weddings and somebody who opposed that were asked to perform the service, or to provide as a vendor products to the wedding, I guess they could do that based upon their religious beliefs,” Chairman Willard said.
“In doing that, would that not override the local city or county ordinance that’s to the contrary,” Rep. Bruce said.
“You ask, the ultimate legal question. I don’t know if any of us here could answer how that would be received or handled by the courts,” Chairman Willard said.
SB 129 passed the House Subcommittee with a five to four vote.
“They have taken a bad bill and made it worse,” Jeff Graham, Executive Director, Georgia Equality and Georgia Unites Against Discrimination, told APN at the time.
“As the hearing yesterday progressed and clearly with the actions of the subcommittee today, it’s very clear that the intent of this bill is to discriminate against the gay and transgender community. It’s very sad there was not a single Republican that would support protecting folks against discrimination,” he said.
“Clearly they would rather put the views of a small number of extremely conservative religious people above the well being of, not only the gay and trans community, but of the larger faith community that has come out against in opposition to this bill,” Graham said.
Two conventions have already cancelled because of the bill and several more are considering cancellations.
In Subcommittee, Democrats voting against the bill were: Reps. Oliver, Evans, Bruce, and Mabra.
Republicans voting for the bill were: Reps. Fleming, Weldon, Powell, Caldwell, and Beskin.