The Georgia Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill Thursday that opponents say will give businesses and individuals a "license to discriminate" against LGBT people and anyone else, under the guise of "religious freedom."
Senate Bill 129, introduced by Republican Sen. Josh McKoon and rushed through the committee McKoon chairs earlier this week, passed the full state Senate by a vote of 37-15, reports LGBT publication Georgia Voice. The measure now goes to the state House of Representatives.
Titled the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act" the legislation claims that "laws neutral toward religion may burden religious exercise as surely as laws intended to interfere with religious exercise."
Without ever mentioning sexual orientation, gender identity, or marriage equality, the legislation seeks to secure the right of persons — which is not explicitly defined and could therefore be interpreted to include businesses, individuals, and even state employees — to refuse service to LGBT Georgians, or anyone else who supposedly offends someone's "religious beliefs."
While Senate Democrats had attempted to attach amendments to the bill that would define "person," the majority Republican leadership voted to "engross" the bill, making it unable to be amended and forcing a vote on the legislation as written.
Advocates of the bill, including its author, claim that the legislation is necessary to protect religious freedom and the free exercise of religion — despite the fact that those protections are already explicitly enshrined in the Georgia and U.S. Constitutions.
Opponents of the bill saw a more sinister motive behind its introduction, and passage through a committee just days later — when the sole Democrat on that committee was in the restroom, according to the GA Voice.
"The reality was there was no real amendment process and no real substantive testimony process," Sen. Curt Thomas said on the Senate floor, according to GA Voice. "That’s not the way to pass a bill. that’s not a way to run a committee and run a process."
Thomas said the bill was unnecessary, framing it as a response to the spread of marriage equality nationwide.
"There’s no way anyone’s going to convince me that that’s not what’s happening now," he said, also referencing the ongoing confusion in Alabama, where the state Supreme Court just ordered judges to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. "We don’t want to be the next Alabama and be the next circus that they are becoming," he said.
"This bill is a reprehensible attack on LGBT people and their families in Georgia," saidHuman Rights Campaign national field director Marty Rouse in a statement Thursday. "It does not address any legitimate problem with current law and creates harmful consequences for businesses throughout the state. It threatens not just the LGBT community, but women, members of minority faiths and other minority classes. All Georgians deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and we need all fair-minded people in the state to help stop this bill."
Similar legislation was introduced in Georgia last year but was scuttled after prominent business leaders and Georgia-based companies denounced the bill as bad for business.