Spotlight On: Georgia and SB 129

We are just five days into the Georgia General Assembly’s 2016 legislative session and we already have four different Protect Thy Neighbor related bills to write about. They are:

  • SB 129, the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA);
  • HB 757, the “Pastor Protection Act”;
  • HB 756, a bill that would allow businesses to (1) refuse to provide services related to marriages or (2) refuse to sell goods or provide services to churches and religious schools (yup, you read that second part right); and
  • The still-to-be-introduced “First Amendment Defense Act.”

With so many bills, an introduction to Georgia’s 2016 session will require a series of posts rather than just one. In this post, we’ll try to provide some background on SB 129, the Georgia RFRA bill.

This is the third year in a row that Senator Josh McKoon is championing the Georgia RFRA bill. It should be no surprise that this year, like the last two, his efforts are causing controversy and eliciting strong opposition from both everyday Georgians and the Georgia business community. Here’s what you need to know about this bill:

 What is a state RFRA?

Remember the battle over the so-called religious freedom bill in Indiana last year?  The one that made national news; earned opposition from large, national companies, including NASCAR, Apple, Google; and prompted threats of boycotts? That battle was over a RFRA.

State RFRAs, in some form or another, are modeled after a federal law of the same name that authorizes religious exemptions to all federal laws and policies. Although the federal RFRA was originally intended to protect genuine religious freedom, many are now trying to use the law to override nondiscrimination protections and deny women access to or insurance for reproductive healthcare.

State RFRA bills generally authorize religious exemptions to each and every state law. When they mirror the federal RFRA, they introduce the same risks that the federal RFRA now does. Some state RFRA bills contain broader language than the federal RFRA, which, of course, creates even greater threats that they will be used to harm others in the name of religion. Regardless of their specific language, nearly all state RFRA bills these days are accompanied by anti-LGBT rhetoric and are meant to prevent women from obtaining insurance for or accessing reproductive healthcare. Georgia is no different.

 What does SB 129 look like?

The language in Georgia’s RFRA bill has changed over the years, but it still has significant problems and should be opposed.

In 2014, Senator McKoon and Representative Sam Teasley both introduced broad state RFRA bills (SB 377 and HB 1023) that were significantly more expansive than the federal RFRA. Neither bill got very far, as they were met with fierce opposition due to concerns that the bills could be used to trump nondiscrimination protections and access to healthcare.

Last year, Senator McKoon introduced SB 129, with language, again, more expansive than the federal RFRA. Even as committee chair, he struggled to get the bill through the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill ultimately passed out of committee and through the Senate, even though suspicious tactics were used, such as holding a vote while the bill’s most vocal opponent on the committee was in the bathroom and could not vote against it. As passed in the Senate, the bill ended up more closely mirroring the federal RFRA.

When SB 129 reached the House Judiciary Committee, its members amended the bill to include nondiscrimination language. If the bill’s sponsor and supporters didn’t want the bill to be used to discriminate, they could have happily accepted that amendment. But that isn’t what happened. Instead they tabled the bill—killing it for the year. To be clear, they opted to kill their bill for the year rather than pass it with nondiscrimination language.

This year, Senator McKoon is saying he wants his bill to ultimately mirror the federal RFRA. Again, that language would still create significant risks that the bill will be used to trump nondiscrimination laws and deny women healthcare. Unless lawmakers add language to explicitly state that the bill cannot be used for those purposes, we will continue to oppose the bill.

What could happen next?

For SB 129 to start moving again, the House Judiciary Committee will have to take it off the table. But the chair of that Committee has stated he has no intention of taking up the bill anytime soon. That doesn’t mean that the bill can’t pass in other ways.  Senator McKoon, or any other lawmaker, could tack the language of SB 129 onto another bill in the House or the Senate.

What can you do?

To start, you can write your state legislators to tell them to oppose this bill and other similar bills. You can also let your friends know why they should oppose this bill.

Stay tuned for posts on other Georgia bills. In the meantime, you can track the progress of this bill and other bills in Georgia and around the country with our new Legislation Tracker.

Follow Maggie Garret online at @maggiefgarrett