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'Religious liberty' bill takes a sharp rightward turn, convention industry says $15 million in business at risk


The debate over S.B. 129, the religious liberty bill, took a sharp rightward turn late Wednesday as a House Judiciary subcommittee rejected language intended to ensure that the legislation wouldn’t result in discrimination against gays and lesbians.

A full House Judiciary Committee meeting will take up the altered bill later today. Look for business opposition to step up. Already, a group of convention bureaus across the state have sent a letter to members of the judiciary committee, saying they know of $15 million in convention business "that will cancel their conventions should this bill pass."

When the panel first convened, committee Chairman Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, passed out a new version of Senate Bill 129 that would have greatly weakened its impact.

Then, over objections from Democrats, the subcommittee spent the next nearly three hours strengthening it again and beating back an effort to ensure it would not legalize discrimination.

As the subcommittee voted down amendment after amendment to add protections for gay Georgians, it became clear that the concerns of the bill’s supporters would not come to pass. For days, vocal advocates of the bill hammered House Republicans, accusing them of working to kill the bill and imploring them to act decisively.

Specifically, state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, introduced an amendment stating that the legislation couldn’t be used to justify child abuse or violation of federal, state or local anti-discrimination laws already on the books.

State Rep. Tom Weldon, R-Ringold, modified that amendment to include only child abuse, and the measure passed.

State Rep. Stacey Evans, R-Smryna, proposed an amendment to change references of “persons” to “individuals,” which would have eliminated corporations from the protection of S.B. 129. State Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, noted that such a move would negate the “closely held corporation” protection granted last year by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case. The amendment was rejected.

The committee also rejected an attempt to incorporate into the legislation a bill proposed by state Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Atlanta, and Willard, which would have barred discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation within state government.

One change that held was requested by the Georgia and Metro Atlanta chambers. S.B. 129 addressed actions by government or entities acting “under the color of law” a phrase that business interests thought offer religious liberty protections to employees. The clause was removed.

If approved by the full committee, S.B. 129 could come to a House floor vote on Friday. And if approved, the Senate could simply accept the changes, given approval from state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus. From the AJC article:

McKoon said he was “pleased with what the subcommittee did (Wednesday). I feel like they definitely put their stamp on this bill but it retains the strict scrutiny test, which is the heart of the whole thing.”

Jeff Graham, executive director of the LGBT-rights group Georgia Equality, declared himself stunned, given testimony earlier in the week that had recommended anti-discrimination language:

“It becomes very apparent that the sole intent of this legislation is to provide a vehicle that would allow discrimination and withhold services from the gay and transgender community here in Georgia.”

Graham singled out state Rep. Beth Beskin, R-Atlanta, a freshman representing the most liberal Republican district in the state, for special attention.

“I find Beth Beskin’s support of this legislation and her continued votes against eliminating discrimination to be especially troubling,” Graham said. He said Beskin’s votes help undermine anti-gay discrimination ordinances passed by the city of Atlanta.

Georgia’s corporate giants have repeatedly expressed opposition to the legislation, but the Georgia and Metro Atlanta chambers have been subdued in their objections. As we said above, that may be about to change.

“This is no longer about the written word contained in the bill. This is about perception and PR. And the PR battle surrounding this issue is lost,” said one business contact closely watching the negotiations. “All you have to do is look to Indiana for the fall out.”

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is to sign a religious liberty bill passed by that state’s legislature on Tuesday, over the objections of Indianapolis’ Republican mayor – who fears for his city’s convention business. From the Indianapolis Star:

Supporters of the religious freedom bill discount notions of huge convention losses. They say conventions that leave Indiana would find some difficulty finding a large convention center in a state without a similar law.

Seven of the 10 largest convention centers are in six states with a similar law or provision in its constitution: Illinois, Ohio, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana and Texas.

Last year, the issue drew scrutiny in Arizona when the state legislature attempted to broaden its existing religious freedom law. Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the measure after gay rights groups, convention planners and others raised objections or threatened to pull out of the state.

Here's that letter we mentioned above, from 13 convention and visitors bureaus across the state, written before last night's changes to the bill:

Last night's GPB broadcast of "The Lawmakers" gave us the clearest signal yet that Gov. Nathan Deal will sign a religious liberty bill if it comes to his desk.

He’s previously said that he had no concerns with such a measure, and noted that he voted in favor of similar legislation in the 1990s while in Congress.

But on the news program, his spokesman, Brian Robinson, said the governor plans to sign the legislation if it hews closely to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Said Robinson:

“The governor doesn't want to get too deeply involved in the legislative process. What we will say is if the House passes it and the Senate then comes to some agreement on compromise, because the bills are somewhat different now, then the governor will sign it.”

***

On Wednesday, the eve of one of the biggest votes of his political career, Gov. Nathan Deal could be found at a Mexican restaurant in northwest Atlanta with a wavering House Republican. The governor took a taco -- or maybe a burrito -- for the team.

At the statehouse on Tuesday, there were ominous signs that his school takeover bid was in trouble. At the restaurant, he met with a conservative legislator for a last-minute personal pitch.

No one will say who the lawmaker is. Or what they ordered. But we are told that the lawmaker did vote in favor of the bill.

***

Expect Gov. Nathan Deal to act quickly on a measure legalizing medical marijuana. But it might still take a week for him to sign the bill into law.

The governor is planning an 11 a.m. ceremony Friday at the statehouse where he will announce his intent to sign the legislation and ink an executive order requiring state agencies to begin preparing for the change. He'll be joined by the effort's champion, state Rep. Allen Peake, as well as the families of children who would be helped by the change.

Why not just sign the bill? The governor's lawyers warned that doing so before the end of the session could risk it getting nullified by another measure that passes in the last three days.

***

Rep. Rob Woodall was among a handful of Republicans who voted against a budget resolution championed by Tom Price.

James Richardson at GeorgiaTipsheet has the details:

To settle a dispute between fiscal and defense hawks over military funding, House GOP leadership brought a half-dozen competing budgets, including a pair by House GOP budget chief Price that varied only in the extent to which the Pentagon’s war fund was expanded, to the floor for votes last night.

Price’s amended blueprint, which would goose the war fund by $96 million instead of the $94 million with $20 million in offsets he originally proposed, came out on top with 228-109 vote split.

Woodall voted down that plan and instead backed the more austere blueprint drafted by the conservative Republican Study Committee, of which the Lawrenceville GOPer was most recently chair.

But the Woodall-backed conservative alternative, which zeroed out the deficit four years faster than Price’s spending model, failed with nearly as many Republicans voting against it (112) as for it (132).


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About the Author

Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.