'Religious liberties' bill renews a recurring Georgia debate

A 'religious liberties' bill that aims to add greater protections for personal beliefs has renewed a recurring debate in Georgia about discrimination and religious freedom.

Republican state Sen. Marty Harbin of Tyrone said Thursday his proposal was drafted to mirror the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by Congress in 1993 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

"I believe that Georgians need to be fully protected under the First Amendment from not only federal law, but also state and local law," Harbin said at a news conference.

But critics say the bill would allow discrimination against the LGBT community.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp pledged during his election campaign last year to sign "nothing more, nothing less" than a mirror image of the federal law. His predecessor, GOP Gov. Nathan Deal, vetoed a similar bill passed by lawmakers three years ago amid threats by major companies to boycott Georgia if the measure became law.

Harbin's bill would require a "compelling governmental interest" before the state interferes with someone's religious practices and, when interference is necessary, the state do so with the "least restrictive means."

Harbin said 31 states have passed some form of legislation protecting religious beliefs and he thinks it's time for Georgia to do the same. He noted that Virginia, the site of Amazon's new headquarters, has similar legislation on the books, pushing back against criticism that such legislation will spark boycotts by major companies.

Georgia Equality, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, said in a news release that Harbin's legislation "would allow businesses to refuse service to LGBT customers, among others, and would grant taxpayer-funded agencies a broad license to discriminate against LGBT youth, families, and other Georgians."

The group's executive director, Jeff Graham, said it would "put us in a negative national spotlight yet again" and risk Georgia's reputation for having a favorable business climate.

Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce said his office would not comment on pending legislation.

Harbin said he tried to draft legislation that met Kemp's pledge.

Similar proposals have been defeated or stalled in recent years, encountering resistance from within the Republican Party along the way.

A bill that would have allowed adoption agencies to decline to work with people based on sincerely held religious beliefs passed the state Senate last year, but stalled in the House.

Next week also marks a Georgia legislative deadline by which bills must generally pass out of one chamber or the other, so timing to move forward is tight.

The legislation was initially assigned to the Rules Committee, which has the ability to send legislation to the Senate floor for a vote. But it was later moved to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which includes some of Harbin's co-signers.

Harbin said he's still trying to determine when it might be up for consideration in that committee.

House Speaker David Ralston in January said he was concerned a Georgia version of the federal law "has a real potential to divide us as a state."

"It's a much different world than it was in 1993," Ralston said. He also said he believed the proposals were a "solution in search of a problem."

Lawmakers from the conservative flank of the Georgia GOP have sought another chance at passing "religious freedom" legislation since Deal vetoed a previous bill.

Deal took a stand against his own party and averted threatened boycotts by major corporations in 2016 by vetoing a "religious freedom" bill that enumerated actions that "people of faith" would not have to perform for other people.

"I do not think that we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia," Deal said at the time.

Companies like Coca-Cola, The Walt Disney Company, Marvel Studios, Salesforce.com and the NFL all came out against that 2016 proposal, with some threatening to take business elsewhere.