For a second year in a row, efforts to pass a Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Georgia failed, in part due to related events going on in other states. In 2014, Josh McKoon’s Senate Bill 377 failed to make it past the Senate Rules Committee after Arizona governor Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that would have extended that state’s RFRA to allow businesses the ability to deny service to LGBT customers because of the owners’ religious faith. This year, the spotlight was on Indiana and Arkansas, where threats of boycotts following the passage of their state RFRAs led them to include language prohibiting discrimination. Meanwhile, Georgia’s Senate Bill 129 failed to advance from the House Judiciary Committee because members couldn’t agree on anti-discriminatory language.
Senator McKoon, along with the bill’s sponsor in the House, Rep. Sam Teasley, have vowed to bring the measure back when the legislature reconvenes in January, 2016. The question is whether it will be met with the same levels of support and resistance than as it was this year and last.
The effort to pass religious freedom bills has opened up a divide between the Republican Party’s social conservative wing and its more business oriented wing. A front page analysis in last Thursday’s New York Times shows the concerns of each side:
The tug of war between social and business-minded conservatives has been long simmering, and surfaced even when President Bush sought to privatize Social Security and some social conservatives feared the move would drive women into the work force.
“There has always been this tension,” said Michael D. Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, “both in terms of tactics, because the economic conservatives wanted to talk about taxes and the economy, and on the electoral strategy,” because those social issues often alienated suburban moderates and cost Republicans elections, he said.
“There is no doubt that the continued opposition of gay rights is an electoral loser,” he added. “Younger Republicans are as pro-life as older Republicans, but gay rights is a huge generational shift and Republicans are going to have to find a way to deal with that issue.”
The Wall Street Journal approaches the same issue, with a story headlined, “Evangelicals Incensed by Business Push Against ‘Religious-Freedom’ Bills.” The story quotes Timothy Head of the Faith & Freedom Coalition as saying, “If the Republican Party and its candidates expect evangelicals, faithful Catholics, and other people of faith to turn out to the polls in large numbers in 2016, they better show more political courage, skill, and moral clarity on one of the most important issues of our time.” Both the Times and the WSJ stories describe the challenge candidates for the 2016 presidential race will have walking the tightrope between the two sides.
A March Wall Street Journal poll showed 59% of Americans support gay marriage, up from 52% in a Pew Research poll taken last September. However, levels of support vary by region and political ideology. In the Pew poll, only 29% of conservatives and 44% of southerners are in favor of same-sex unions. In addition, 38% of Georgians identify as evangelical protestants, according to Pew Research, much higher than the national average of 26%.
As Jim Galloway points out in his column from last Thursday, the political influence of evangelicals, especially Southern Baptists, is strong in Georgia. He also points out three important dates: Georgia’s GOP State Convention on May 15th and 16th, where as many as 5,000 people could hear pitches from presidential candidates, the last week in June, when the Supreme Court could make same sex marriage legal throughout the country, and March 1st 2016, the Peach State’s presidential primary date, and a time when the 2016 session of the Georgia legislature will be in full swing.
What happens at those three events, plus newfound interest by Governor Deal’s office in guiding the debate could determine whether the third time is the charm for McKoon and Teasley.