Georgia lawmakers are seeking to join 19 states that have passed laws modeled after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), including all of those bordering Georgia.
The proposed legislation would prohibit any law that “substantially burdens a person’s exercise of religion.”
Court decisions in more than a dozen states have reaffirmed similar protections for religious liberty.
In comments for the Washington Post, University of Virginia Law professor Douglas Laycock explained that those decisions came as a result of wide-ranging cases: “There were cases about Amish buggies, hunting moose for native Alaskan funeral rituals, an attempt to take a church building by eminent domain, landmark laws that prohibited churches from modifying their buildings – all sorts of diverse conflicts between religious practice and pervasive regulation.”
However, opponents claim that the Georgia bill could allow business owners to discriminate against homosexuals.
State Senator Josh McKoon (R-Columbus), who sponsored the bill, said that opponents of the legislation do not understand its intent.
“We’ve had a bizarre political dynamic in that the far left in some of these organizations mischaracterized the bill last year and compared it to the legislation that was being introduced in Arizona,” he told CNSNews.com.
Arizona has a version of the RFRA on the books. But Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed legislation passed last year dealing specifically with the right of business owners to reject customers on religious grounds.
McKoon says the legislation would primarily keep the state government out of people’s voluntary interactions, referring to a Banks County library that rejected a donation of several Bibles, and Atlanta Public School students who were barred from holding a voluntary Bible study in the building outside of school hours.
Hundreds of religious freedom advocates gathered at the Georgia State Capitol on January 13 to protest Cochran's termination and delivered a petition signed by 50,000 people demanding his reinstatement.
Cochran’s attorneys said the firing violated his First Amendment rights.
McKoon says he believes that in most cases, institutions aren’t choosing to discriminate against religious people or practices because they want to do so.
“They’re doing it in most of these cases because they’re afraid of out-of-state litigation,” McKoon said. “There’s no countervailing right that they would be able to employ.”
Originally passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the RFRA could only apply to the federal government -- not to the states -- in its 1997 decision City of Boerne v. Flores.
In the aftermath, states began passing their own version of RFRA, largely without controversy. Then-Sen. Barack Obama voted in favor of the legislation in Illinois in 1998.
In more recent years, gay rights activists have argued that the legislation could be cited by business owners as a legal justification not to do business with them.
In Georgia, the Chamber of Commerce has prominently joined opponents of the legislation. “Practices that open the door to discrimination or create the perception that Georgia supports a discriminatory business environment would threaten our competitiveness,” said Chamber spokeswoman Joselyn Baker.
“This discussion about denial of services, the so-called 'right to discriminate,' and other things just frankly were not in any way representative of what the legislation would do,” McKoon previously said. “[My bill] sends the opposite message that Georgia is welcoming and a great place to be."
This is not the first time the legislation has been proposed in Georgia. Sen. McKoon and Rep. Sam Teasley (R-Marietta) introduced the bill during the 2014 legislative session as well. At the time, Delta Airlines, Coca-Cola, and Home Depot were all Chamber members who individually expressed opposition to its passage. The bill died before coming out of the Rules Committee.
McKoon told CNSNews.com that he is planning to file the legislation again within the next few weeks. He believes it is likely to be assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs.
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) has taken a cautious tone. “What I'm going to look at is what does this bill do that the Constitution doesn't do?” he said. “I want to understand the intensity of the opposition.”
But McKoon says he doesn’t anticipate the bill will attract the same level of antipathy in the legislature that its opponents are predicting.
“I’ve been having one-on-one conversations, not just with Republicans, but with Democrats as well… I want them to know the facts before we get the bill out there.
“The people I’ve been talking to have been very supportive, very willing to jump in. I’ve had a number of members itching, saying they were ready to move it forward,” he said.