McKoon draws controversy over religious liberties bill

For much of the current Georgia legislative session, Republican Sen. Josh McKoon has found himself at the center of a storm created by a religious liberties bill he has championed for two years.

And it looks like the storm will continue into the final two days of the General Assembly session this week as the bill approved by the Senate has stalled in the House, but is still alive.

McKoon's bill would forbid the government from infringing on a person's religious beliefs unless the government can prove a compelling interest in the case, and it would cover individuals as well as some corporations. Critics say such measures are being considered in 13 states as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares for a possible ruling this summer legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

McKoon said he will continue to fight for Senate Bill 129's passage in the closing days of the session. The bill has another hearing scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday in the House Judiciary Committee, McKoon said late Friday. It has to be voted out of committee to face a vote of the full House. If approved by the House, it would still have to be signed by Gov. Nathan Deal before becoming law.

"There is an active movement from House members to get the language for it to get out of committee," McKoon said on Friday. "All I can say is it is a fluid situation."

The bill failed to be voted out of the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday when the committee supported adding anti-discrimination language to the bill. The Republican-led Judiciary Committee chose to table the bill rather than face a vote with the anti-discrimination language.

When explaining his objection to the anti-discrimination language that failed to get in the House version of the bill, McKoon said it would create 800-plus different standards throughout Georgia, since any local government could adopt an ordinance that would impact the protections of SB 129.

"Take the example of a Catholic school that hires a teacher and there is a morality clause in her contract," McKoon said. "Say she is living with someone outside of marriage and that violates the morality clause, that school would have no protection if the local government adopted an 'anti-discrimination' ordinance."

McKoon's bill has brought strong opposition from the Georgia and national gay and lesbian community. It has also had critics in the Georgia business community, including the state Chamber of Commerce.

Jeremy Hobbs, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender liaison for Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson's Commission on Unity, Diversity and Prosperity, strongly opposes the legislation.

"You know what you need to know about this when they refused to vote for it with an amendment that would protect the civil rights of the LGBT community," said Hobbs, a Columbus gay and AIDS rights advocate.

"... This bill allows hatred and open discrimination -- plain and simple. Not one instance has a person's religious freedoms been at stake in this state. So why do we need this bill? There is no excuse for it."

Former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers has been hired by Georgia Equality, a pro-Gay rights organization, to fight the bill.

"As I understand it, the bill was being amended to add a provision that it can't be used to discriminate," Bowers said on Friday. "That would dramatically change the nature of the bill. This bill has as its purpose to discriminate against a whole host of people. What do I base that on? The language of the bill."

McKoon, a Columbus Republican serving his third term in the General Assembly, has personally been the target of the strong opposition to the bill. Rep. John Pezold, also a Columbus Republican who is close to McKoon, has watched the debate with interest.

"I think Josh has all of his facts together and has handled himself with grace and class," Pezold said. "I know he has been called every name in the book."

That's what hurts, McKoon said.

"The most offensive thing to me is that I have been labeled a bigot or anti-gay," McKoon said Friday. "When we strengthen religious liberties, we strengthen tolerance. A truly free society can allow robust protections of religious freedom alongside other individual rights."

The bill allows Georgia judges to weigh religious liberty interests against compelling government interests as 30 other states and the federal government have previously done, McKoon said. The Georgia debate comes as Indiana Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed a similar religious liberties bill into law Thursday.

"Legislative language of SB 129 has attracted support over the years of Barack Obama when he was an Illinois state senator and Ted Kennedy when he served in the U.S. Senate."

Hobbs, who said he voted for McKoon in 2010 and praised the senator's work on campaign finance reform, said McKoon has "fumbled this one."

"Do I believe Josh is a bigot? No," Hobbs said. "I believe he is trying to jump on the bandwagon to get self-recognition for whatever his ambitions are. ... I believe Josh is misguided in his intentions for personal political growth and the people of our state have to pay because of his own selfish agenda."

McKoon's critics have not been shy about voicing strong opposition to the bill. One of those was British singer Elton John, who has owned a home in Buckhead for about a quarter of a century. John, openly gay, has been a strong proponent for gay and AIDS rights. He wrote an op-ed piece for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently. John said the law could lead to discrimination.

"To be clear, I firmly believe in freedom of religion. Everyone has the right to worship as they choose," he wrote. "But I also believe in justice, equality and the rule of law. We can't just let people refuse to follow a law because they don't like it. And we can't just grant special exemptions that allow people to discriminate at will."

McKoon said he took exception to John's opinion piece.

"I will give him the benefit of the doubt that he actually wrote it," McKoon said. "But it is based on misconceptions about the bill. When someone hits the RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) button all of a sudden they are exempt from the law. That is simply not the case."

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.