One of the most controversial bills considered by the state House this year is likely dead for the session. However, a companion bill in the Senate remains alive.
Critics of House Bill 1023, or The Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, say it would allow private business owners to cite their religious beliefs as a reason to deny service to gay customers.
The bill is currently in the House Judiciary Committee. After two packed subcommittee meetings in recent weeks, Judiciary Chair Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, says more vetting is needed on the bill. He says it likely won’t make Monday’s Crossover Day deadline, the date in which legislation must be approved by at least one chamber to remain alive.
“Can’t see it happening. It came in rather late in the session. Too many proponents and opponents,” said Willard.
Several states, including Arizona, are considering codifying similar legislation.
Authors of HB 1023 say it’s based on a federal law passed in 1993 and signed by President Bill Clinton. The law requires the federal government prove a “compelling interest” in order to override a person’s religious freedom. The Georgia bill would apply that legal standard to state cases.
Willard, however, says he wants more time to make sure there are no unintended consequences.
“We’ve got pretty good, strong constitutional provisions that address freedom of religion. I realize this is apparently coming as a result of some other states doing it and a federal statute that was brought in a number of years back but I just want to wait and look at it and make sure we’re doing the right thing,” said Willard.
LGBT advocates in the House welcomed the news. Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates, says HB 1023 was clearly flawed.
“Theoretically everyone wants to believe in religious freedom. It’s just when you flip it around to say religious freedom actually means that some people are really not free, then it becomes an issue,” said Drenner, who is openly gay.
Despite HB 1023 appearing dead, similar legislation remains alive in the Senate. The bill sponsor – Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus – says the LGBT community is not the target. Rather, he says, Senate Bill 377 is “another tool in the toolkit” to help religious institutions from complying with the Affordable Care Act on issues like birth control requirements.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill Friday. No word yet on whether the full Senate plans to vote on it by Monday’s Crossover Day deadline.