Max Blau, Georgia’s “religious freedom” bill to return in 2015 legislative session, Creative Loafing Atlanta

For your first controversial piece of legislation of the 2015 General Assembly, look no further than the return of a “religious freedom” bill similar to a measure that received massive backlash from the LGBT community and some corporations last winter.State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, tells CLthat he plans to reintroduce another “religious freedom” bill when state lawmakers convene in January. McKoon says his proposal will help protect the right to free exercise of religious beliefs across the state. The bill will be his second attempt at passing a measure that opponents have said would allow business owners to discriminate against LGBT and other minority groups.

“Religious pluralism is one of the foundation stones of this country,” McKoon says. “Sending a message that people of every faith are welcome in this state, and don’t have to worry about government trampling their right to free exercise, is something we should want to champion.”

McKoon says his bill will contain similar language to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 21-year-old federal law designed to block measures that limit a person’s free exercise of religion, which currently doesn’t exist at the state level in Georgia. The state senator’s law wouldn’t be the first in the country: 19 states have adopted RFRA laws that mirror the federal measure following a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision that weakened the law’s protections at both the local and state level. In addition, more than a dozen other states have passed similar legislation to bolster religious rights.

Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham tells CL such “religious freedom” legislation sets a “dangerous precedent” that could lead to potential discrimination against members of the LGBT community based on religious grounds. He also says McKoon’s proposal could reach far beyond the LGBT community. RFRA law, he says, can potentially be used to prevent women from accessing birth control or making it more difficult for someone to escape a household with domestic violence.

Under the legislation, Graham says business owners would be able to deny gay people services and employees could potentially discriminate in the workplace. Fortune 500 corporations such as Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, and Home Depot; the city of Atlanta; and the Georgia Municipal Association opposed McKoon’s 2014 “religious freedom” legislation for similar reasons.

“People’s individual religious views needs to be respected, but that’s why we have the First Amendment in this country,” Graham says. “We run into problems when people’s religious views feel the need to trump the law and deny important services to others.”

McKoon says his 2014 bill was mischaracterized as an attempt to copycat an Arizona measure that would have given business owners the right to refuse services to gay people. He says the controversial bill, which Gov. Jan Brewer ultimately vetoed, was different from RFRA legislation (Arizona enacted a RFRA law in 1999).

“This discussion about denial of services, the so-called ‘right to discriminate,’ and other things just frankly were not in any way representative of what the legislation would do,” McKoon says. “[My bill] sends the opposite message that Georgia is welcoming and a great place to be.”

In Georgia, Graham says sexual and gender identity rights already lack protection under state law, such as the right to marry and employer discrimination. Though that may change, pending the outcome of a lawsuit challenging Georgia’s gay marriage ban, he’s concerned that the legislation could gut LGBT rights before they’re potentially restored.

“We had a long dark period in our country where various proprietors were able to deny services based on race, ethnicity, sex, or gender,” Graham says. “Sex and gender identity are not protected under the law. It’s still legal to be discriminated against [in Georgia].”

Following Sine Die, McKoon says cooler heads have prevailed in conversations he’s had with people worried about the “religious freedom” bill. If the bill gets passed, he’s not concerned about legal challenges related to potential discrimination, pointing to the lack of litigation in Mississippi following the approval of a similar bill earlier this year. But to keep conversations going, McKoon says he won’t pre-file legislation in case the measure needs minor adjustments.

CL has also reached out to openly gay state Reps. Simone Bell, D-Atlanta, and Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates, for comment. If wear back, we’ll post an update.