GOP Split Over Religious Freedom Debate Could Be a Factor in Georgia Next Year

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.

19 comments

  1. John Konop says:

    Debbie Dooley alluded to what this is really about with her endorsement of McKoon for governor. McKoon is selling his soul to the social conservatives for a run to be governor. A first your law student could see the issues with his bill, let alone a lawyer like McKoon….McKoon just wants his name in the paper….and to be the so-con candidate…..also he is playing into Dooley with his anti-transportation stance…..with no real solutions….If McKoon represents what the GOP is about….like many I will stop voting republican….

  2. Josh McKoon says:

    From today’s Columbus Ledger-Enquirer Letters to the Editor

    McKoon undeserving of vitriol
    April 6, 2015

    One has to wonder what Senator Josh McKoon has done to deserve all the vitriol–profanity-laced insults, even personal threats, he’s been getting lately. Has he resurrected Jim Crow laws? Joined the KKK?

    Well … no.

    His offense was sponsoring a bill — The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) — that mirrors one introduced in Congress in 1993 by liberals Ted Kennedy and Chuck Schumer and enthusiastically signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Owing to a 1997 Supreme Court decision deeming the law inapplicable to state governments, over 30 states have since implemented judicial or legislative remedies.

    These facts are hard to ascertain in the midst of an outlandish political circus orchestrated by leftist zealots. This newspaper is one of the few providing balanced coverage, but, in parroting angry left-wing activists, other media have reflexively branded McKoon a reactionary bigot. Anyone who knows him would laugh at this; but, sadly, such slander has been given a totally undeserved megaphone. Truth has taken a back seat to propaganda, and perception has trumped reality.

    McKoon’s bill — less expansive than Indiana’s — asks government to demonstrate a “compelling state interest” before interfering in religious practices of citizens. This legislation is congruent with both the federal RFRA and the Constitution. It gives no one a license to discriminate. It offers a modicum of legal recourse for citizens who believe their religious rights have been violated.

    Contrary to popular belief, government is not typically a neutral party in such scenarios. When it forces an employer to provide coverage for abortafacients it is not acting neutrally; it is acting in accordance with underlying moral presumptions. Consequently, two conflicting value systems surface. Religious freedom protections allow citizens a better opportunity to act in accordance with their value systems rather than those of a dictatorial government. What could be fairer?

    Mark P. Smith

    Pine Mountain

    http://www.ledger-enquirer.com/2015/04/06/3655377/mckoon-undeserving-of-vitriol.html#storylink=cpy

    • georgiahack says:

      So, you got a constituent to send a letter to the paper filled with the same lies you told during the session and last year. Big whoop.

    • Boredatwork says:

      You owe the taxpayers a refund for your salary and office budget. You accomplished nothing while trumpeting a needless bill that would have cost the state millions in investment and conventions and generally been a national embarrassment.

    • John Konop says:

      ….leftist zealots. This newspaper is one of the few providing balanced coverage, but, in parroting angry left-wing activists….

      1) Lie number one, complaints came from business people ( who did not want Georgia to become Indiana via bad PR for jobs) , as well Goldwater conservatives, you do know he was the father of the conservative movement? Warned about politicians like you?

      ……… It offers a modicum of legal recourse for citizens who believe their religious rights have been violated……..

      2) LOL….lawyers are all sides said your bill was filled with issues…..All you had to do was put in language to protect civil rights….LOL….like I had to tell you the lawyer….LOL….

      ……Religious freedom protections allow citizens a better opportunity to act in accordance with their value systems rather than those of a dictatorial government. What could be fairer?…

      3) On numerous threads you commented on….your supporters want this bill to deny service to any non protected class….You never seemed to have an issue….

      Why not be honest? You are a smart lawyer, and know all the legal issues better than most….This was nothing more that a PR stunt….sadly, you would sell out jobs….just to get your name out to run for governor. I will pray for you.

    • georgiahack says:

      “This legislation is congruent with both the federal RFRA and the Constitution.” False. The version you put forth went further than the Federal RFRA by including corporations. The Federal RFRA only applies to the Government. The Georgia one did not. The federal law grants such rights only to people, nonprofit organizations and, in the case of the often-cited Hobby Lobby ruling, to closely-held corporations where owners share the same religious beliefs.

      Also your bill expanded the definition of religious belief that greatly expands the types of claims that people can bring.

    • John Konop says:

      A great post you should read from Posner!

      ………..I have maintained all along that there has been no demonstrated need for this law. Not a single example has been given, to my knowledge, of neutral, generally applicable laws being used to infringe on religious freedom in Georgia.

      Instead, what we’ve heard all along is examples of religious “discrimination” in areas where gov’t officials have discretion (e.g. firing the police chief, mosques in shopping centers, etc). If there is discretion, then strict scrutiny ALREADY applies under well settled Supreme Court precedent (although Rep. Teasley apparently “disagrees” with this, it’s not disputed by any law prof or court watcher I know of).

      And this brings us to the bigger picture–what are the neutral, generally applicable laws that this WOULD apply to. The two largest categories are (1) criminal laws and (2) non-discrimination provisions. So you can imagine why there is such a firestorm about this–people who may benefit from non-discrimination laws feel (rightly, in my opinion) targeted. Because we certainly aren’t passing RFRA so that religious people can smoke more weed in Georgia (the underlying fact pattern in Employment Div. v. Smith).

      But, again, talking about “neutral, generally applicable laws” and contrasting those with ANY OTHER law, which already receives strict scrutiny, is too “technical” a distinction for most people (especially non-lawyers)……….

    • Will Durant says:

      I’m going to paraphrase to save time. You’ve stated multiple times here and elsewhere that this legislation’s purpose is not to allow discrimination. You’ve also stated that amending the bill to disallow discrimination would gut its intention.

      Which is it?

  3. Bull Moose says:

    I have been giving this issue a lot of thought, as I know Josh McKoon personally and know him to be of good character. This is an issue of faith for Josh and not an issue of hate.

    Josh and I have discussed his bill and I have privately urged him to reconsider, and not push this bill forward, but this issue is important to him. Just because I disagree on this issue with Josh, doesn’t mean that I don’t like Josh or don’t have respect for him. I think a lot of the voices on this issue would be wise to remember you can oppose the legislation supported by someone without being opposed to the person in entirety.

    That said, it was while watching The Good Wife last night that I began to see this effort in a new light. I’m going to paraphrase, but essentially one of the plot lines on the show had to do with RFRA. A baker had denied a request by a gay couple to make their wedding cake. The gay couple decided to sue the baker. In the debate about the issue, the plaintiff’s attorney made the point that while the baker had rejected the gay couple’s business based on religious freedom, that didn’t stop the baker from making wedding cake’s for divorced people that were marrying. In essence, the plaintiff’s attorney made the point that the baker could not pick and chose what parts of their closely held religious rights they would exercise. In this instance, the judge ended up finding for the plaintiff against the baker.

    Now, I realize that this is from a TV show, but it illustrate a good point. Time magazine posed this question, “Whose rights are at risk? Is it the believer whose religious convictions are out of step with political power? Or is it the person whose freedoms run afoul of the believer’s faith?”

    As stated, I’m opposed to an RFRA without clear language that prohibits it being used as a means of discrimination. There’s a lot of time between now and the next legislative session, so hopefully common ground can be found on this issue without it further pushing people to take one side or the other.

    • benevolus says:

      As I’ve said before, I think using the cake baker as an example minimizes the problem. Where do we draw the line? How about real estate agents, or bankers? Aren’t we heading down a road of permitting separate drinking fountains?

      In the end, I think that the more this type of legislation is forced, the sooner we will end up designating another protected class. It would be nice to avoid state-sponsored discrimination in the meantime though.

    • John Konop says:

      Bull,

      You know I like and respect your opinion. You and I are not lawyers….and we were smart enough to understand the issue you posted:

      ………….the plaintiff’s attorney made the point that the baker could not pick and chose what parts of their closely held religious rights they would exercise. In this instance, the judge ended up finding for the plaintiff against the baker……..

      Are you saying McKoon as a lawyer could not figure this out? The guy is not stupid….he is in fact from what I hear from mutual friends is very smart. If this was done by a non lawyer…with limited knowledge of the legal system….I could buy it…..It is obvious to most legal scholars on both sides pre this bill the SC will side with gay marriage. This is all about politics….McKoon will be from center with Ralph Reed group in Georgia saying that is why we need this bill….which once again is a lie….because gay people could claim religious protection to get married…..this is the worse type of politics….what I have always respected about you, is your guts to call it out. Do you really think this will not be a circus led by McKoon and company post SC ruling in Georgia?

  4. KD_fiscal conservative says:

    I’ve known Josh for years now. He’s not a racist or a bigot. From everything I’ve seen, and heard, he’s a fundamentally good man. The problem is he legislates with his deeply held personal religious beliefs and is blind everything else, including business interests, transportation interests, etc. If there’s an issue that social and business conservatives disagree with he’ll always take the social cons side. As far as running state-wide on a record of staunch social conservativism…good luck with that.

    • John Konop says:

      KD,

      I also respect your comments as well, always well thought-out…….On most issues we end up on the same side over the years.What I find most obnoxious is the below attitude toward anyone who does not follow lock step with social cons. Does your friend Josh really think you and I are “leftist zealots”?

      FROM LETTER MCKOON POSTED:

      ….leftist zealots. This newspaper is one of the few providing balanced coverage, but, in parroting angry left-wing activists….

      • KD_fiscal conservative says:

        Just political rhetoric from Josh. He’s our neighbor but I don’t really talk politics with him….mainly small talk. I don’t agree with many of the issues decides to aggressively fight for….it’s best to avoid those issues.

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