Georgia’s "religious liberty" bill appears dead for the year.
A key House committee tabled it Thursday. With only three days left in this year’s legislative session, the bill’s prospects look dim.
At a House Judiciary Committee meeting, supporters insisted the state needs to better protect religious expression from government overreach. They strongly denied critics’ assertions that it would provide a means to discriminate against gays and lesbians.
Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, said if that was the case then he wanted language in the bill that explicitly prohibited discrimination.
"I take at face value the statements of proponents that they do not intend discrimination with this bill, but I also believe if that is the case we as the General Assembly should state that expressly in the bill itself," Jacobs said. "This is what my constituents want me to do. This is what I want to do as their legislator. And this is what I think we should do as a General Assembly."
Three similar amendments had failed just a day before in a special subcommittee. The Judiciary Committee’s vice chair, Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, was unequivocal.
"This is the amendment which will gut this bill ... and if this amendment is attached to it I will not be able to support final passage," he said.
To the surprise of many in attendance, Jacobs’ amendment passed 9-8. Three Republicans ─ Jacobs, Beth Beskin of Atlanta, and Jay Powell of Camilla ─ voted with six Democrats in support of it.
Fleming immediately motioned to table the bill and the committee unanimously agreed. The meeting then came to an abrupt halt.
"We’re very surprised but ultimately very pleased," Jeff Graham of the advocacy group Georgia Equality said. "It's an important victory for the gay and transgender community here in Georgia and for the faith community that has stood with us in opposition."
Lawmakers can still reconsider the bill, but with only three legislative days left, final passage would be procedurally difficult.
"We're going to remain vigilant," said Graham. "It's a victory we have today, but may not have in the future."
Georgia is one of about a dozen states that are considering religious liberty bills. More than 30 states have some version of the law already in effect.