Religious freedom bill hits another snag; protesters gather in Columbus

As the clock ticks down on the Georgia legislative session, it appears that Sen. Josh McKoon’s religious freedom bill may have trouble getting out of the House Judiciary Committee.

After failing to win committee approval Thursday of last week, it was scheduled for a second hearing this morning. But that hearing apparently won’t happen, according to a report on AJC.com. There was no word if the meeting would be rescheduled. There are just two more legislative days remaining in the session, which is scheduled to conclude this Thursday. The bill has to win committee passage to be voted on by the full House.

McKoon, a Columbus Republican, said late Sunday he had read the report of the meeting being cancelled.

McKoon, who sponsored the bill that passed in the Senate, said he “will keep working until the last day.”

While McKoon continues to fight for the bill’s passage, about two dozen people attended a hastily called prayer vigil in downtown Columbus on Sunday night. The group, which met in the Government Center plaza, was united in opposition to Senate Bill 129.

“The same language being used today to exclude gays, lesbian, transgender has been used to exclude people in the past,” said Rabbi Beth Schwartz of Temple Israel in Columbus. “It has been used to exclude people in the past not only because of their religion, because of the color of their skin, because of their ethnic background. And every time they have been proved wrong.”

Schwartz said she learned of the vigil 10 minutes before it started on social media and was moved to attend.

Georgia and about a dozen other states are considering Religious Freedom Restoration Act bills. Last week, similar legislation was signed into law in Indiana. It has drawn sharp criticism from gay rights organizations and threats of protests and boycotts of the state.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said Saturday that he will support the introduction of legislation to “clarify” that the state’s controversial “religious freedom” law does not promote discrimination against gays and lesbians, according to multiple reports.

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.

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.

This is the second year McKoon has sponsored such a bill in the General Assembly. If it fails to pass the House this week, the bill will still be available for consideration during next year’s session.